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The Value of Work in ‘Shop Class as Soulcraft’

September 4, 2009 at 1:56 PM EST
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Jeffrey Brown speaks with philosopher, author and motorcycle-repair shop owner Matthew B. Crawford about the fulfillment found in building and fixing things, which he details in the new book "Shop Class as Soulcraft."
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JIM LEHRER: And, finally tonight, in praise of working with your hands. Jeffrey Brown has our Labor Day book conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Motorcycle maintenance, Martin Heidegger, and how we live as consumers and workers, it all comes together in a new book by Matthew Crawford, “Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work.”

Crawford runs a motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, Virginia. Before that, he briefly headed a think tank in Washington. And he got a Ph.D. in political philosophy at the University of Chicago. Matthew Crawford joins me now. Welcome to you.

MATTHEW CRAWFORD, author, “Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work”: Thanks.

JEFFREY BROWN: One thing that are you doing here is, as you say early in the book, speaking up for an ideal that is timeless, but finds little accommodation today, manual competence. What does that mean?

MATTHEW CRAWFORD: Simply the ability to — to make things and fix things, and also the inclination to do so. So, the book is in part an attempt to speak up for the honor of the manual trades and to suggest that that could be a life that’s worth choosing. I think we have developed a kind of educational monoculture in this country, where anyone with even halfway decent test scores is getting hustled into a certain track, were you end up working in an office.

And that’s fine — or would be, except that I think a lot of people, including some who are very smart, would rather be learning to build things or fix things.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you’re suggesting that, once, there was this value, through shop class, for example, that many, myself, many people remember having at one time, but they don’t have any more.

MATTHEW CRAWFORD: Well, shop class — it is a complicated story, but the simple version is that it was pretty widely dismantled in the 1990s to make room for computer class. And we had this idea — maybe we still do — that, somehow, we’re going to be gliding around in a pure information economy, everybody in front of their screens. And I think that vision was tied to a set of notions about what kind of work is valuable and important.

JEFFREY BROWN: Put it in — I mean, in the book, you put it in personal terms a little bit, telling your own story. You — a degree in philosophy, Ph.D., an office job as a so-called knowledge worker.

MATTHEW CRAWFORD: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: … and then turning away and turning to motorcycle repair. Now, is that because that kind of work is more fulfilling? Is that the word? Or what is it that happens in the shop?

Knowledge work vs. manual work

MATTHEW CRAWFORD: Well, I guess what's appealing to me is a job that involves using your own judgment. And I find that that is very much the case in fixing motorcycles.

I think we have had this dichotomy of knowledge work vs. manual work, as though they are two very different things. But that is a distinction that just doesn't make a lot of sense to me. I mean, say you were trying to diagnose why a car doesn't idle properly. It's not a trivial problem. And I think, you know, the -- it's easy to assume that if the work is dirty, it must be stupid. And, conversely, I think we sometimes romanticize some kind of white-collar work by presuming that it has more intellectual content than it may actually turn out to.

JEFFREY BROWN: But...

MATTHEW CRAWFORD: Go ahead.

JEFFREY BROWN: No, but -- I'm sorry -- but the ability -- you're talking about the ability to control -- the notion of agency is the way you put it in the book, the ability to control your own outcomes you find in the shop. Can I not find that in the office as well?

MATTHEW CRAWFORD: Well, there's a -- obviously a great diversity in different kinds of work that take place in an office, and some of them much better than others. I had a job that sounded great initially. It was writing summaries of articles in academic journal articles. And I thought I would learn a lot. The problem was that there was a quota of writing 28 of these per day, which was flatly impossible to actually do. But the job was conceived in such a way that -- in fact, the training in the first week was -- offered me these instructions for doing it as though it could be done in a sort of rote, routine way. And so the job was actually quite dumbed down, and it only paid $23,000 a year.

Now, the irony is that I got that job because I had a master's degree. And, so, I thought I had to use it and wear a tie and become a knowledge worker. And the further irony is that I had previously worked as an unlicensed electrician making about twice as much money, and using my own judgment every day, and, as a result, feeling like my actions were genuinely my own. And I think that's what we want...

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you are making a case here for the individual's fulfillment or sense of control over one's work life.

MATTHEW CRAWFORD: Yes.

'The spirit of self-reliance'

JEFFREY BROWN: But you also, I think, are trying to say something larger about our culture, about that we have lost something. What is that something? And what -- what would you like to see regained?

MATTHEW CRAWFORD: I guess the spirit of self-reliance. I think it's become more difficult to be self-reliant, in part because of changes in material culture.

So, for example, if you lift the hood on some cars now, there is essentially another hood under the hood. And I don't know what the thinking is, maybe that the sight of an alternator might offend us.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean to protect us from having to...

JEFFREY BROWN: But I'm speaking as someone who can barely change -- check the oil. That's how most of us are, right?

MATTHEW CRAWFORD: Well, in fact, some high-end cars now don't even have a dip stick, so you couldn't check your oil level if you wanted to. And I take that -- I mean, I can't be the only person who is a little bit creeped out by that. And I take it as an index of a broader shift in our relationship to our own things. I think there's fewer occasions to be responsible for your own physical environment. And, with that, I think comes less expectation of responsibility.

JEFFREY BROWN: You talk about -- you say work -- that you are writing on behalf of work that is meaningful because it is genuinely useful. You are repairing motorcycles. That's useful to the person who rides a motorcycle.

MATTHEW CRAWFORD: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: But riding motorcycles isn't necessarily useful. So, what do you mean useful for -- useful for society? Useful in what way?

MATTHEW CRAWFORD: Just in some very low-to-the-ground, narrow sense that, for example, fixing someone's motorcycle is. I mean, if you follow that logic far enough, that's probably every -- everything we do is useless, in that it doesn't serve really essential needs, unless you are a farmer, I guess. But we can't all be farmers.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you are going back to the shop to work?

MATTHEW CRAWFORD: Yes, I have got a lot of motorcycles waiting for repair.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the book is "Shop Class as Soulcraft." Matthew Crawford, thanks very much.

MATTHEW CRAWFORD: Thank you.