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Shop Class as Soulcraft

August 9, 2009

“Spirit?” said the old bum.  “There’s no spirit involved in manufacturing or in sex.  Yet these are man’s only concerns.  Matter–that’s all men care about.  As witness our great industries–the only accomplishment of our alleged civilization–built by vulgar materialists with the aims, the interests and the moral sense of hogs.  It doesn’t take any morality to turn out a ten-ton truck on an assembly line.”  — Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, p. 168

“You knew what exacting morality was needed to produce a single metal nail…  You knew that man needs the strictest code of values to deal with nature…”  — Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, p. 420

“The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy.  They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering “interpretations” of himself to vindicate his worth.  He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on.  Boasting is what a boy does, because he has no real effect in the world.  But the tradesman must reckon with the infallible judgement of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away.  His well-founded pride is far from the gratuitous “self-esteem” that educators would impart to students, as though by magic.”  — Matthew Crawford, “Shop Class as Soulcraft,” page 15.

“In this book I would like to speak up for an ideal that is timeless but finds little accomodation today: manual competence, and the stance it entails toward the built, material world.”  — Matthew Crawford, “Shop Class as Soulcraft,” page 2.

Several months ago, I stumbled across an extensive NYT essay, penned by Matthew Crawford.  He was given quite a bit of room to hold forth since he had recently published a book titled “Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work.”  (I highly recommend reading that essay, and not just because it is a good way to get the gist of the book)  It was quite evident that Mr. Crawford was a particularly talented and particularly well-prepared critic of some commonly held beliefs in our society, and that he and I were on the same wavelength with respect to the latter.  I immediately bought his book and was glad that I did so!  I’ll comment on it a bit here, and provide some of my favorite quotes from it.

The author has a rich background which I believe makes him nothing short of a renaissance man.  He spent his highschool years tuning up his VW bug to have as much extra horsepower as he could afford, his summers in highschool and college wrenching on motorcycles and working as an electrician, majored in physics as an undergrad, took classes on Greek language and philosophy toward his Master’s degree, and earned a PhD in political philosophy.  The book is equal parts metaphysics and motorcycle physics–this is a man who is no stranger to any level of thinking, from concrete physical objects to the most abstract levels of thought.  After getting his doctorate, he quit his job running a think tank after five months to open a motorcycle repair shop.  He was disillusioned with the arbitrary standards of office-life and a job that required him not to adhere to objective facts, but to churn out opinions which aligned favorably with the people writing the checks for the research.


IMG_1871Sensing a wider discord in society with respect to our daily work, he penned this fine book.  I recommend it with few reservations.  There were several sections in which his philosophical education peeked through, and which was inconsistent with the other fantastic quotes this book was laden with.  While reading the book, I foolishly chose to dog-ear pages instead of highlighting quotes.  The result is that I now own a book that has around 1/3 of it’s pages folded over.  It’s that damn full of good quotations.  I would say that the book revolved around several themes, including the following:



  • The “future economy” is not one in which we will all be “knowledge workers,” where the manual trades are either nonexistent or have all been offshored.  “If you need a deck built, or your car fixed, the Chinese are of no help.  Because they are in China (page 3).” 
  • The potentially subjective and thus psychically draining standards of working an office job. Where the product of your work is hard to objectively measure, it’s hard to achieve a sense of agency–an identification of personal competence according to objective standards.
  • The necessarily objective work standards of the tradesman, who works with real-world entities.
  • “I often find manual work more engaging intellectually. (page 5)”  The notion that the manual trades are “beneath” the “intellectual work” of jobs requiring a college degreee is thoroughly debunked here.  Consider a poorly functioning engine.  It is the intelligence of the mechanic which allows him to discern the solution for a complex system comprised of concrete and unshifting metallic components.  This sort of physical context which a mechanic must work in will not yield to petty officespace politics, unhinged groupthink in “teamwork,” or business-babble buzzwords.  A mechanic cannot evade the question: does the engine work–Yes?  Or No?

I get the sense that Crawford was fighting the subjectivism which his advanced degrees must have exposed him to, as well as the jobs which those degrees enabled him to fill.  He majored in physics as an undergrad, but I consider physics to be one step removed from real-world application, which the field of engineering attempts to bridge (a quote from the book by his physicist father will illuminate this point later).  His advanced degrees were in philosophy and political philosophy–the institutional bastions of subjectivism, whose scholars are largely insistent that nothing is consistent (another great quote regarding beauty, voiced by these faculty members, will also be supplied).  It’s evident that he retaliated and retreated to the hard standards of the trades to reconnect with something objective.  On some level, he was able to see that these schools of thought–who have largely renounced objectivity–are not really bound by anything, by their own admission.  An education in subjectivism instills in people a sense of futility, helplessness, and incompetence–if they really buy into what they are being taught.  As Crawford himself stated:

Insecurity about the basic character of the world is no fun for most people. (p. 20)

Crawford rejected this and recognizes that to live successfully and to be happy, one has to live in harmony with the unchanging facts imposed on us by the reality we live in.  I’ll let Crawford do the talking from here.  I’ve provided a number of good quotes from the book below.  These ought to give you a sense of what he’s driving at.



In California, three quarters of high-school shop programs have disappeared since the early 1980’s. (page 11)


Stepping outside the intellectually serious circle of my teachers and friends at Chicago into the broader academic world, it struck me as an industry hostile to thinking.  I once attended a conference entitled “After the Beautiful.”  The premise was a variation on “the death of God,” the supposed disenchantment of the world, and so forth.  Speaking up for my own sense of enchantment, I pointed out, from the audience, the existence of beautiful human bodies.  Youthful ones, in particular.  This must have touched a nerve, as it was greeted with incredulous howls of outrage from some of the more senior harpies.  (p. 105)


… I can hear his salute in the exuberant “bwaaAAAAP! blum-blum” of a crisp throttle, gratuitously revved.  That sound pleases me, as I know it does him.  It’s a ventriloquist conversation in one mechanical voice, and the gist of it is “Yeah!” (page 4)


Today, in our schools, the manual trades are given little honor.  The egalitarian worry that has always attended tracking students into “college prep” and “vocational ed” is overlaid with another: the fear that acquiring a specific skill set means that one’s life is determined.  In college, by contrast, many students don’t learn anything of particular application; college is the ticket to an open future.  Craftsmanship entails learning to do one thing really well, while the ideal of the new economy is to be able to learn new things, celebrating potential rather than achievement. (page 19)

In fact, in areas of well-developed craft practices, technological developments typically preceded and gave rise to advances in scientific understanding, not vice versa.  The steam engine is a good example.  It was developed by mechanics who observed the relations between volume, pressure, and temperature.  This was at a time when theoretical scientists were tied to the caloric theory of heat, which later turned out to be a conceptual dead end.  The success of the steam engine contributed to the development of what we now call classical thermodynamics.  This history provides a nice illustration of a point made by Aristotle: “Lack of experience diminishes our power of taking a comprehensive view of the admitted facts.  Hence those who dwell in intimate association with nature and its phenomena are more able to lay down principles such as to admit of a wide and coherent development; while those whom devotion to abstract discussions has rendered unobservant of facts are too ready to dogmatize on the basis of a few observations (Aristotle, On Generation and Corruption).” (Crawford, page 22)

In other words, inductive reasoning is more easily performed when you have more knowledge to work with, and you gain knowledge by working in reality and observing facts.

Working on my car without guidance, I felt constantly thwarted.  Corroded nuts and bolts routinely broke or would round off; I came to be surprised when they simply loosened.  Intermittent electrical gremlins eluded diagnosis…  The car mocked my efforts to get a handle on it, as though it obeyed some evil genius rather than rational principles.  Meanwhile, I was getting reacquainted with my father, living with him after six years away…  A physicist, he would sometimes proffer some bit of scientific knowledge that was meant to be helpful as I sat on the ground in front of my lifeless engine.  These nuggets rarely seemed to pan out.  One day as I came into the house filthy, frustrated, and reeking of gasoline, my dad looked up from his chair and said to me, out of the blue, “Did you know you can always untie a shoelace just by pulling on one end, even if it’s a double knot?”  I didn’t really know what to do with this information.  It seemed to come from a different universe than the one I was grappling with.  Thinking about that posited shoelace now, it occurs to me maybe you can and maybe you can’t untie it at a stroke–it depends.  If the shoelace is rough and spongy, and the knot is tight, it will be a lot harder to undo than if the knot is loose and the shoelaces is made of something slick and incompressible, like silk ribbon.  The shoelace might break before it comes undone.  He was speaking of a mathematical string, which is an idealized shoelace, but the idealization seemed to have replaced any actual shoelace in his mind as he got wrapped up in some theoretical problem.  As a teenager, this substitution wasn’t yet clear to me as such.  But it began to dawn on me that my father’s habits of mind, as a mathematical physicist, were ill suited to the reality I was dealing with in an old Volkswagen. (page 78)

I saw this in engineering–students who graduated with me who didn’t know the difference between a phillips and flathead screwdriver–who believed that all there was to engineering was book theory, without understanding that there was quite a large amount of experience and knowledge required in order to make that theory into useful application in design.  If an engineering degree is supposed to represent qualification to engineer the design of machines, how can that degree be taken seriously when a graduate doesn’t know the difference between screwdrivers–so elemental to machine manipulation? 

The disappearance of tools from our common education is the first step toward a wider ignorance of the world of artifacts we inhabit (Crawford, page 1).


We want to feel that our world is intelligible, so we can be responsible for it.  This seems to require that the provenance of our things be brought closer to home.  Many people are trying to recover a field of vision that is basically human in scale, and extricate themselves from dependence on the obscure forces of a global economy…  I would like to consider whether this poignant longing for responsibility that many people experience in their home lives may be (in part) a response to changes in the world of work, where the experience of individual agency has become elusive.  Those who work in an office often feel that, despite the proliferation of contrived metrics they must meet, their job lacks objective standards of the sort provided by, for example, a carpenter’s level, and that as a result there is something arbitrary in the dispensing of credit and blame.  The rise of “teamwork” has made it difficult to trace individual responsibility, and opened the way for new and uncanny modes of manipulation of workers by managers, who now appear in the guise of therapists or life coaches.  Managers themselves inhabit a bewildering psychic landscape, and are made anxious by the vague imperatives they must answer to. ( page 8 )


Corporations portray themselves as results-based and performance-oriented.  But where there isn’t anything material being produced, objective standards for job performance are hard to come by.  What is a manager to do?  He is encouraged to direct his attention to the states of mind of workers, and become a sort of therapist.  By way of contrast, consider the relationship between a machinist and his shop boss.  The machinist makes his part, then hands it to his boss.  Let us imagine the boss pulls his micrometer out of his breast pocket, and either find the part within spec or doesn’t.  If he doesn’t, he looks at the worker with displeasure, or maybe curses him, because either he failed to read the drawing correctly, failed to clamp it properly in the machine, spaced out while cutting, or doesn’t know how to use his own micrometer.  Whatever the cause, the workers failing is sitting on the bench, staring both parties in the face, and this object is likely to be the focal point of the conversation.  But in the last thirty years American businesses have shifted their focus from the production of goods (now done elsewhere) to the projection of brands, that is, states of mind in the consumer, and this shift finds its correlate in the production of mentalities in workers.  Process becomes more important than product…  Though the demands made on workers are invariably justified in terms of their contribution to the bottom line, in fact such calculations are difficult to make; the chain of means-ends reasoning becomes opaque, and this opens the way for work to become a rather moralistic place.  (page 127)


Shop class presents an image of stasis that runs directly counter to what [Richard] Sennett identifies as “a key element in the new economy’s idealized self: the capacity to surrender, to give up possession of an established reality [Sennett, “The Culture of New Capitalism“].”  This stance towards “established reality,” which can only be called psychedelic, is best not indulged around a table saw. (Crawford, p. 19)

Or, again:

You knew what exacting morality was needed to produce a single metal nail.. You knew that man needs the strictest code of values to deal with nature…”  — Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, p. 420

One can’t be a musician without learning to play a particular instrument, subjecting one’s fingers to the discipline of frets or keys.  The musician’s power of expression is founded upon a prior obedience; her musical agency is built up from an ongoing submission.  To what?  To her teacher, perhaps, but this is incidental rather than primary–there is such a thing as the self-taught musician.  Her obedience is rather to the mechanical realities of her instrument…  These limits need not be physical; the important thing is rather that they are external to the self.  Consider the experience of learning a foreign language, beautifully described by Iris Murdoch: “If I am learning, for instance, Russian, I am confronted by an authoritative structure which commands my respect.  The task is difficult and the goal is distant and perhaps never entirely attainable.  My work is a progressive revelation of something which exists independently of me.  Attention is rewarded by a knowledge of reality.  Love of Russian leads me away from myself towards something alien to me, something which my consciousness cannot take over, swallow up, deny or make unreal [Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good].” (Crawford, page 64)

Here, Crawford relates a story from Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” involving several careless mechanics who seem to have no real commitment to doing the job of repairing his motorcycle well:

“Nothing personal in it.”  Here is a paradox.  On the one hand, to be a good mechanic seems to require personal commitment: I am a mechanic.  On the other hand, what it means to be a good mechanic is that you have a keen sense that you answer to something that is the opposite of personal or idiosyncratic; something universal.  In Pirsig’s story, there is an underlying fact: a sheared-off pin has blocked an oil gallery, resulting in oil starvation to the head and excessive heat, causing the seizures.  This is the Truth, and it is the same for everyone.  But finding this truth requires a certain disposition in the individual: attentiveness, enlivened by a sense of responsibility to the motorcycle.  He has to internalize the well working of the motorcycle as an object of his passionate concern.  The truth does not reveal itself to idle spectators…  Any discipline that deals with an authoritative, independent reality requires honesty and humility.  (page 98)


…[W]e tend to think of the craftsman as working in his own snug workshop, while the tradesman has to go out and crawl under people’s houses, or up a pole, and make someone else’s stuff work.  So I want to avoid the precious images of manual work that intellectuals sometimes traffic in. (page 6)

Oppressed in my seventeen-year-old way by the liberal pieties of Berkeley, I had recently taken to wearing combat boots and reading Soldier of Fortune magazine.  But Chas was something different, the first genuine reactionary I ever met.  Deeply cynical and witty, he loosened these angry tendencies of mine with his corrosive humor.  He also initiated me into a certain positive possibility opened up by alienation from all things respectable: the pleasures of metal.  Of course, wood is great.  But to this young man it seemed that wood was for hippies, and hippies in various guises ruled the world.  The wood whisperer with his hand planes, his curly maple, and workshop on Walden Pond is a stock alter ego of gentlefolk everywhere, and I wanted none of it.  A grade 10.9 nyloc nut, on the other hand, is appreciated only after a certain initiation, one that tends away from the mysticism of the official counterculture.  It is a strictly utilitarian mentality bred in the crucible of motorsports, where every component is stressed up to and beyond its limit. (page 85)


We often hear of the need for an “upskilling” of the workforce, to keep up with technological change.  I find the more pertinent issue to be: What sort of personality does one need to have, as a twenty-first-century mechanic, to tolerate the layers of electronic bullshit that get piled on top of machines? (page 7)


It may be telling that it is leisure activities that come first to mind when we think about intrinsic satisfactions–athletics, for example, or hobbies we enjoy.  Such activities are ends in themselves, and we pursue them without anyone having to pay us to do so.  Conversely, with work, getting paid is really the main point, and there would be something utopian in trying to understand work without reference to its external rewards.  It may be that a partition of work and leisure, harsh necessity and sweet pursuits, is just a fact of life.  But I want to consider what a more integral sort of life might look like, even if doing so requires venturing into the discreditable territory of “idealism.”  It is common today to locate one’s “true self” in one’s leisure choices.  Accordingly, good work is taken to be work that maximizes one’s means for pursuing these other activities, where life becomes meaningful.  The mortgage broker works hard all year, then goes and climbs Mount Everest.  The exaggerated psychic content of his summer vacation sustains him through the fall, winter, and spring.  The Sherpas seem to understand their role in this drama as they discreetly facilitate his need for an unencumbered, solo confrontation with unyielding Reality.  There is a disconnect between his work life and his leisure life; in the one he accumulates money and in the other he accumulates psychic nourishment.  Each part depends on and enables the other, but does so in the manner of a transaction between sub-selves, rather than as intelligibly linked parts of a coherent life.  On the other hand, there are vocations which seems to offer a tighter connection between life and livelihood…  (p. 181)

Aristotle’s understanding of happiness can shed light on those activities that truly engage us; maybe it can teach us something about work and leisure as well.  His account is grounded in a more comprehensive understanding of creatures: to understand any particular sort of being, the best way to proceed is by looking at it, and taking note of its characteristic activity.  That activity represents the “end” of the creature, its purpose.  In Greek, its telos.  In English, this teleological understanding of happiness gets condensed in the proverbial saying “Happy as a pig in shit.”  Rolling around in shit is what pigs do, and they dig it.  Frolicking is what dolphins do.  It is worth noting in passing how Aristotle’s biology reverses contemporary Darwinian view.  For the neo-Darwinian, the frolicking of the dolphin is assumed to have some survival value, either for the preservation of the individual or the passing on of its genes.  I suspect that if you were to ask a dolphin about this, he would say it is backward: he lives in order to frolic, he doesn’t frolic in order to live.  This is the Aristotelian view, precisely.  Such activities are experienced as intrinsically good.  (page 192)”

Following Aristotle, [Talbot] Brewer connects this aspect of inquiry to our experience of pleasure, the kind we get when we become absorbed in what we are doing.  He writes that there is an “appreciative discernment of value that accompanies and carries forward intrinsically valuable activities,”  and that it is this evaluative attention that renders the activity pleasurable.  “[T]o take pleasure in an activity is to engage in that activity while being absorbed in it, where this absorption consists in single-minded and lively attention to whatever it is that seems to make the activity good or worth pursuing…  If one were struck only by the instrumental value of the activity…  one’s evaluative attention would be directed not at the activity but at its expected results–that is, at something other than what one is doing.  This sort of attention… absents us from our activity and renders it burdensome. [Brewer, 2009 manuscript, The Retrieval of Ethics]” (Crawford, page 194)

I like to fix motorcycles more than I like to wire houses.  Both practices have internal goods that engage my attention, but fixing bikes is more meaningful because not only the fixing but also the riding of motorcycles answers to certain intuitions I have about human excellence.  People who ride motorcycles have gotten something right, and I want to put myself in the service of it, this thing that we do, this kingly sport that is like war made beautiful (page 196).


You should buy this book.  I’ve only selected a few of my favorite quotes which ring rightly with many of the principles I personally practice.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 10, 2009 4:18 pm

    Somehow this book had made it into my cart on Amazon yet had eluded purchase. Thanks for the post, it was just the nudge I needed! Now it is on its way.

    I think I may have to follow it with “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” Have you read that?

    • justinketterer permalink*
      August 10, 2009 4:48 pm

      Haven’t read that one, though people have said it sounds very similar to “Shop Class” when I describe it to them.

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