Shopcraft as Soulcraft:
An Inquiry into the Value of Work
By Michael B. Crawford
Penguin, $25.95, 246 pp.
In Little Horrors of Shop, a classic episode of the late, lamented Fox animated comedy King of the Hill , ultra-straight arrow and regular guy Hank Hill discovers to his dismay that his son’s school is not offering shop class. For Hank, it’s just one more way that the culture is not helping him promote manly virtues in his son.
Hank, on forced vacation from the propane shop because he hasn’t taken time off in more than a decade, volunteers to be a substitute shop teacher. Soon, he's the most popular teacher in the school as his class responds to the practical over the pedagogical. And the students gain self-esteem the old fashioned way: by accomplishing something concrete.
Unfortunately, this leads to professional jealousy in the school (which hits close to home as Hank's wife, Peggy, zealously guards her string of Substitute Teacher of the Year awards). Hank ultimately is banned from the school when the principal uses “zero tolerance” to shut down shop because kids are carrying around "sharp objects" (i.e., tools).
Matthew B. Crawford’s Shopcraft as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work is an outstanding and important new book that brilliantly explores the themes Mike Judge captured in King of the Hill.
Crawford argues that society's educational elites have devalued skilled labor in order to shoehorn as many kids as possible into a cubicle in the “information age” — even those who show a mechanical aptitude and would almost certainly make a better living working with their hands.
Crawford, who holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Chicago, effectively uses his own experience to frame his arguments; he quit a prestigious job in a think tank in order to open a motorcycle repair shop and has never been happier.
In one brilliant sentence, he recalls a moment of truth that captures his awakening when working his first job out of college. Summing sums up all that is misguided about how educrats and politicians prepare kids for the “world of tomorrow,” he muses:
“How was it that I, once a proudly self-employed electrician, had ended up among these walking wounded, a ‘knowledge worker’ at a salary of $23,000?”
But most teachers and professors would have bragged about student Matt Crawford -- even in his entry-level job, much less the think tank — but it’s hard to imagine the same teachers boasting about Matt the Mechanic, or Matt the Electrician.
No, to the educational elites, any job that requires manual labor -- no matter how skilled or how much thinking, problem-solving and initiative may be required -- are considered “dead end” or “old economy” jobs.
Crawford points out early on in Shopcraft that schools actually are funneling students into the most easily outsourced and dispensable jobs.
“Of course there is nothing new about American futurism. What is new is the wedding of futurism to what might be called ‘virtualism’: a vision of the future in which we somehow take leave of material reality and glide about in a pure information economy. … (F)or fifty years we have been assured that we are heading toward a `postindustrial society.’ While manufacturing jobs have left our shores to a disturbing degree, the manual trades have not. If you need a deck built or your car fixed, the Chinese are no help. Because they are in China.”
And despite labor shortages and articles in the Wall Street Journal stating that the trades are the surest path to a good living, anything labeled “blue collar” by the pundit and political class stays out of favor. We have to prepare our kids for that Jetsons world where robots do all the work on our jet cars.
This is partly natural, however, Crawford writes. Americans hate the thought of a pre-determined future. College is seen as a way to open options, while learning a trade is seen as limiting them. Still, Crawford contends, “many students don’t learn anything of a particular application.”
In one study, Crawford reports, guidance counselors pushed 90 percent of their students to go to college. That makes no sense, but it's only half the problem. A student like Crawford would naturally be pushed toward college. But by degrading the trades and not offering shop to every student, not just the ones whom teachers think are not college material, an attractive and profitable life choice is being denied a huge number of kids.
“It is a rare person who is naturally inclined to sit for sixteen years in school, and then indefinitely at work, yet with the dismantling of high school shop programs, this has become the one-size-fits-all norm, even as we go on about `diversity.’
Crawford contends teachers hate shop because its outcomes are so easily and objectively judged -- anyone can tell if the student has learned anything. (I suspect this is also why so many parents love soccer and hate baseball. If you run around and “hustle” on the field, you can look like a good soccer player, but you have to hit, catch or throw a baseball. Failures are all yours and obvious.)
But young people need a chance to fail, Crawford writes, especially gifted students who are praised for “being smart,” but if they avoid math and foreign languages (and shop), they can coast through high school with lots of self-esteem but little objective reason for it.
Both right and left are culpable for eliminating shop class, however. Crawford does explore the reasons why liberals aren’t wild about shop, (he calls it the politics of irresponsibility).
But I remember conservative groups in the 80s also went after “voc-ed,” accusing educators of making “industrial policy,” of “limiting kids’ potential” and painting shop as part of “outcomes-based education.” Teachers unions and school administrators were only too happy to be thrown into that briar patch, and shop classes by the hundreds died on the vine.
The author spends a good deal of time discussing how corporations and government have made white-collar jobs into the same drudgery as unskilled labor — possibly even more so — but ignores how unions-- which are even more hostile to individual initiative -- have tried to force skilled labor into the same repetitive patterns. Perhaps is because the book largely is a reflection of his personal experience.
But that’s unfortunate because unions are a major reason for the educational phenomenon he decries. Unions all but have a trademark on the term “skilled trades,” which makes Republican politicians suspicious. So, they talk of “emerging sectors” and the “knowledge economy.”
Democrats profess to love people who work with their hands, but they tend to hate everything they actually do. Liberalism is at war with blue-collar work, which often involves petroleum, digging, cutting and building — all things they are trying to limit through regulation.
The educrats are more than willing to go along because of the reasons Crawford enumerates. And since teachers unions have more political power than any skilled trade association or union, going along is the path of least resistance for the politicians.
In many ways, tradesmen are a class without a party. Those who own their own business are heavily Republican, and those who don’t are a natural constituency for conservatism.
Skilled tradesmen tend to have an entrepreneurial ambition -- what dealership mechanic doesn’t deep down want to open his own garage? What union electrician wouldn’t rather be a contractor?
At times, Crawford over-intellectualizes his subject; Shopcraft is expanded from an essay, and it shows at times. But the book aimed is less toward the practical types it is advocating for and more written to convince policy makers and educators — and they dig that kind of stuff.
For the most part, though, Shopcraft as Soulcraft is plainly, passionately and practically argued. Michael Crawford has done an enormous service by writing it — is anyone listening?
He has found his zen, if you will, in motorcycle maintenance. Shopcraft is not only an important social document but also a deeply personal one. When Crawford talks about his work, we understand his joy at a job well done.
So if he could be a guidance counselor, what would Crawford advise your graduate?
“If you have a natural bent toward scholarship, if you are attracted to the most difficult books out of an urgent need, and can spare four years to devote to them, go to college. In fact, approach college in the spirit of craftsmanship, going deep into the liberal arts and sciences. But if this is not the case, if the thought of sitting four more years in a classroom makes your skin crawl, the good news is that you don’t have to go through the motions and jump through the hoops for the sake of making a decent living. Even if you do go to college, learn a trade in the summers You’re likely to be less damaged and quite possibly better paid than a cubicle-dwelling tender of information systems or low-level `creative.’ To heed such advice would require a certain contrarian streak, as it entails rejecting a life course set out by others as obligatory and inevitable.”
In other words, it would be a very American thing to do. This book is selling well. Let’s hope it has a lasting impact.