The Value of Work in 'Shop Class as Soulcraft'

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.


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?