Every once in a while, a piece of writing will pop up that stops me cold. The magazine, “The Week” often ends with an excerpt from a book and in their June 26, 2009 edition, they featured excerpts from the book, Shop Class as Soulcraft by Mathew Crawford.
When I was growing up, the world was still divided into “college” and “shop class” categories. Sadly, it was still divided into “shop class” and “home economics” as well. And if you were “a person of color,” you ended up fast tracked into “shop class” even if you were Ph.D material. By the time I was in college, the world had shifted and everybody was fast tracked to “college,” whether they wanted to go there or nt. Pretty soon, trade school after trade school disappeared. Which actually began to make sense as jobs involving “trades” were also “disappeared to death” i.e. China and India and Mexico. Now comes Mathew Crawford with an interesting perspective, considering the economic realities were facing now.
Crawford was a well educated Ph.D (political philosophy) and worked as an “executive director of a policy organization in Washington. Landing the think tank position felt like a coup at the time. But certain perversities became apparent as I settled into the job. The organization had taken certain positions, and there were some facts it was more fond of than others. As its figurehead, I was making arguments I didn’t fully buy myself. Further, my boss seemed intent on retraining me according to a certain cognitive style – that of the corporate world, from which he had recently come. This style demanded that I project an image of rationality but not indulge too much in actual reasoning.”
Unable to stay in that corporate, white collar world, Crawford quit and turned to repairing motorcycles. There he discovered several profound “philosophies” at work. The first was personal: “To me, there seems to be more real thinking going on in the bike shop than there was in the think tank. In fixing motorcycles you come up with several imagined trains of cause and effect for manifest symptoms, and you judge their likelihood before tearing anything down. This imagining relies on a mental library that you develop. As in any earned profession, you just have to know a lot. . . . . There is always a risk, when repairing a motorcycle, of introducing new complications. This too enters the diagnostic logic. . . . The factory service manuals will tell you to be systematic to eliminate variables. But they present an idealized image of diagnostic work; they never take into account the risks of working with old machines. So you put the manual away and consider the facts before you. You do this because ultimately you’re responsible to the motorcycle and its owner, not some procedure.”
Crawford’s other lessons extrapolated from the nature of “manual” labor, that actions have direct consequences. While white-collar managers . . . “ learn the art of provisional thinking and feeling, expressed in corporate doublespeak, and cultivate a lack of commitment to their own actions. Nothing is set in concrete the way it is when you are, for example, pouring concrete.” While “ . . . . As an electrician you breathe a lot of unknown dust in crawl spaces, your knees get bruised, your neck gets strained from looking up at the ceiling while installing lights or ceiling fans, and you get shocked regularly, sometimes while on a ladder. Your hands are sliced up from twisting wires together, handling junction boxes made out of stamped sheet metal, and cutting metal conduit with a hacksaw. But none of this damage touches the best part of yourself.”
And from there, he goes on to make some key connection between what he calls the “character” of work and what went missing in our society and a whole generation as our self-created Masters of the Universe ran this country off into a ditch.
“The visceral experience of failure seems to have been edited out of the career trajectories of gifted students. It stands to reason, then, that those who end up making big decisions that affect all of us don’t seem to have much sense of their own fallibility, and of how badly things can go wrong even with the best of intentions [like when he dropped a feeler gauge down into a very expensive motorcycle he was working on and had to figure out how to fix the ensuing accident without destroying the cycle]. In boardrooms of Wall Street and the corridors of Pennsylvania Avenue, I don’t think you’ll see a yellow sign that says, “Think Safety!!” as you do on job sites and in many repair shops, no doubt because those who sit on the swivel chairs tend to live remove from the consequences of the decision they make.
“Perhaps we should be encouraging all gifted students to learn a trade, if only in the summers, so that their fingers will be crushed once or twice before they go on to run the country. There is good reason to suppose that responsibility has to be installed in the foundation of your mental equipment – the level of perception and habit. There is an ethic of paying attention that develops in the trades through hard experience. It inflects your perception of the world as your habitual responses to it.
“But the trades do not have to be an apprenticeship to something else. The good life comes in a variety of forms. This variety has become difficult to see; our field of aspiration has narrowed into certain channels. But the current perplexity in the economy seems to be softening our gaze. Our peripheral vision is perhaps recovering, allowing us to consider the full range of lives worth choosing. For anyone who feels ill-suited by disposition to spend his days sitting in an office, the questions of what a good job looks like is now wide open.”
"Perhaps we should encourage gifted students to learn a trade, if only in the summers, so that their fingers will be crushed once or twice before they go on to run the country. "
Doesn’t get any clearer than that. Crawford’s book is as near as your local bookstore.