Matt Crawford on Working With Your Hands

Matt Crawford, a friend of TAS, has just published Shop Class as Soulcraft, a brilliant book that had its origins in the pages of The New Atlantis. This week’s Times Magazine has an essay that draws on the book, a mix of polemic and memoir that deftly draws together strands from intellectual history and the social sciences and a lot of other disciplines as well. Here is the concluding paragraph.

Ultimately it is enlightened self-interest, then, not a harangue about humility or public-spiritedness, that will compel us to take a fresh look at the trades. 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 question of what a good job looks like is now wide open.

My dearest wish is that this book will be read by high schoolers and college students, who need it most. Jackson Lears and Richard Sennett, two of my favorite thinkers, have praised the book, as has the indispensable Rod Dreher. I also had the great pleasure of reviewing an advance copy of the book, and, to my delight, my blurb made it onto the hardcover:

Shop Class as Soulcraft is easily the most compelling polemic since The Closing of the American Mind. Crawford offers a stunning indictment of the modern workplace, detailing the many ways it deadens our senses and saps our vitality. And he describes how our educational system has done violence to our true nature as ‘homo faber’. Better still, Crawford points in the direction of a richer, more fulfilling way of life. This is a book that will endure.”

And actually, I think I understated the case. Do yourself a favor and buy this book. One of my favorite passages from the excerpt is the following:

Everyone is rightly concerned about economic growth on the one hand or unemployment and wages on the other, but the character of work doesn’t figure much in political debate. Labor unions address important concerns like workplace safety and family leave, and management looks for greater efficiency, but on the nature of the job itself, the dominant political and economic paradigms are mute. Yet work forms us, and deforms us, with broad public consequences.

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 I dropped that feeler gauge down into the Ninja). In the 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 remote from the consequences of the decisions they make. Why not 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?

There is good reason to suppose that responsibility has to be installed in the foundation of your mental equipment — at 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 and your habitual responses to it. This is due to the immediate feedback you get from material objects and to the fact that the work is typically situated in face-to-face interactions between tradesman and customer.

An economy that is more entrepreneurial, less managerial, would be less subject to the kind of distortions that occur when corporate managers’ compensation is tied to the short-term profit of distant shareholders. For most entrepreneurs, profit is at once a more capacious and a more concrete thing than this. It is a calculation in which the intrinsic satisfactions of work count — not least, the exercise of your own powers of reason.

That this idea is orthogonal to our political conversation suggests to me, at least, that our political conversation is bankrupt.