03 February 2010

On SHOP CLASS and showing your work

There's a pleasure and a satisfaction in accomplishing something tangible when you are otherwise denied that option. I wouldn't say I look forward to coming home from a hard day shoveling data or pushing around icons designed to look like paper to, say, sew on a button, but it's nice to know that I can should the need arise. Matthew B. Crawford isn't a tailor, as it happens, he's a mechanic, and thanks to this book's press well on his way to becoming the second most famous philosopher-mechanic out there. "I believe the mechanical arts have a special significance for our time," he writes "because they cultivate not creativity, but the less glamorous virtue of attentiveness." SHOP CLASS AS SOULCRAFT is an insightful book about work and values, but it loses its way when it tries to stretch around a moral framework.

Crawford uses his own experiences to augment, not provide a skeleton for his argument that the definition of work in this modern age has come down somewhat addled. He grew up loving, then tinkering with classic cars and motorcycles, a hobby he carried through a deadening office job (more on that later), a Ph.D in philosophy at the University of Chicago and a frustrating stint at a think tank, after which he opened up a small bike shop in Virginia. (Also, in the notes to this book Crawford mentions as an afterthought that he grew up in a commune, which is potentially the most hilarious author fact I've ever seen shoved into a reference section as if it were irrelevant.)

This is strictly subplot, though, to his arguments, and some of his points are hard to assail: Young Americans are encouraged in greater and greater numbers to go to college and become knowledge workers instead of tradesmen. At the same time, we still need tradesmen, while those knowledge jobs (I don't think this is the term he uses, just my shorthand) are very easy to outsource. Moreover, knowledge jobs rarely require a college degree anyway, nor do they definitely demand more from their holders than a trade like plumbing or electricity or mechanics, occupations unfairly stigmatized by their perception as easy to perform, dirty and undignified. To build these arguments he quotes from a broad range of sources from Aristotle to Iris Murdoch and yes, even Robert Pirsig. (Uncited, he also quotes St. Augustine as saying "The curious man is always a fornicator," a statement both personally morally troublesome and linguistically suspect. Anyone have a copy of CONFESSIONS handy? Footnote me!)

In his introduction Crawford writes, "I want to avoid the precious images of manual work that intellectuals sometimes traffic in. I also have little interest in wistful notions of a 'simpler' life that is somehow more authentic, or more democratically valorous for being 'working class.'" Unfortunately, he sort of does this anyway, romanticizing the tiny dump of a shop he used to share in a slummy neighborhood in Richmond or the first time he rode in a hot rod. Beyond that, his historical argument is a little crooked: Crawford has clearly found a way to unite his mental and physical talents, but in order to do that he had to have the opportunity to do that as a factory worker in 1875 wouldn't have had. Theodore Q. Factoryworker had to start threading bobbins at age 8, so he didn't have time to attend classes at the U of C.

Crawford makes it clear that he doesn't think education is wasted on anybody, but his point that those interested in a trade consider not going to college assumes that they have the luxury of considering going. Not everyone may want to hold the kind of office job Crawford satirizes in his chapter "The Contradictions of the Cubicle" -- more on that in a sec -- but his advice is for students and their advisers to opt out of higher education, rather than suggesting to employers that their standards are too high.

"The Contradictions of the Cubicle" is Crawford's best chapter and also the one I found the most problematic in its implications. Crawford takes on the natural habitat of the knowledge worker and finds it not only wanting in challenge and human suitability, but also bankrupt:
Absurdity is good for comedy, but bad as a way of life. It usually indicates that somewhere beneath the threshold of official notice fester contradictions that, if commonly admitted, would bring on some kind of crisis. What sort of contradictions might these be? To begin with, we are accustomed to think of the business world as ruled by an amoral bottom-line mentality, but in fact it is impossible to make sense of the office without noticing that it has become a place of moral education, where souls are formed and a particular ideal of what it means to be a good person is urged upon us.
Crawford's office experience, I mentioned earlier, consisted of what sounded like a totally soul-deadening stint writing summaries of scholarly articles for a database marketed to libraries (InfoTrac, anyone?) Its governing idiosyncrasy was that Crawford, with an image of himself as a thoughtful and probing individual, was asked to read dozens of scientific studies a day and then boil them down into incomplete, factually questionable abstracts as soon as possible so that other educated people could make decisions based on them. Raise your hand if you've had a job governed by idiosyncrasy before.

Later in the chapter, he takes on trust exercises and team building and the paradox of "management," a (in his opinion) nothing word describing a nothing job that has leached into organizations everywhere, and it's all spot-on and funny until Crawford claims that such environments are actually poisonous to the soul. Surely not everyone in America goes to work and comes out Gordon Gekko. Or is that just my naïveté showing because I haven't been in the workforce long enough for it to morally grind me to dust? I have had jobs like Crawford's database madness, and I don't think they ever launched me into a philosophical crisis, but what if I'm not higher-order enough to realize that that had already happened to me? (Well, there's my crisis now!!)

As for the natural antidote being tinkering with a Porsche or building a shed, I didn't follow that as a useful moral cure. Crawford argues that moral inquiry "may be helped along by practical activities in company with others," but I wasn't sold on the practical activities bit. On one hand he rhapsodizes over the companionable silence of his motorcycle shop, broken only by expletives when he screws up, but on the other hand he implies that he attained a philosophical clarity through his work that I would have liked to see more of in action. I greatly appreciated that he did not create a bunch of archetypal workers to have dialogues that make his points, a la anything in the business section subtitled "A Fable," but it seemed that he glossed over that logical step a little.

Did Crawford feel a sense of accomplishment after turning in his draft of SHOP CLASS AS SOULCRAFT? I heartily hope he did, it would be well-deserved. I cling to the belief that writing is my motorcycle but I would be delighted if you would read this book so we can discuss it, potentially while fixing things, but perhaps not. Meanwhile, Crawford's original essay that inspired the book is still online for a taste.


Elizabeth said...

I've always found it odd that being a physician is considered a respectable job for very smart people while being an auto mechanic is not, when it always seemed to me that the work was quite similar: your client brings you a set of symptoms, you diagnose what's causing them, and then you fix it. It's just that physicians work on human bodies while auto mechanics work on cars. It's true that mistakes in the one field may have greater consequences than in the other, but I don't see how that would change the intellectual challenges of the work itself.

8yearoldsdude said...

my father calls dentists "molar mechanics" to underscore your point.