Shop class as soulcraft by Matthew B. Crawford

I borrowed Shop Class as Soulcraft from the local library after seeing it displayed at book shops around town. At first I wasn't sure if I wanted to read it. The wink, or rather play at Robert Pirsig classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance , seemed a bit too obvious: the under-title is 'An Inquiry Into the Value of Work' while on Zen and the[…] it is 'An Inquiry into Values'. In addition there are motorcycles on the cover. Enough to make me suspicious rather than curious.

But I learned that the author, Matthew B. Crawford , really does repair old motorcycles - so I could not complain about the cover - and to be fair: the under-title could have its source in an all too creative editor. Besides, the book did make me curious. I recently spent some time at the UBC bike kitchen building a bicycle, and the joy of those hours make me coming back to the workshop.

The main idea presented in Shop class as soulcraft is that practical work - based on skill and craftsmanship - give something of value back. It is also hinted at that this is something society and market need in order to function. Crawford base his arguments on his own experiences in academia and industry, in his work as an electrician, and a motorcycle repair man. However, he also back up the arguments with many references to work in philosophy and economy.

He observes that few feel happy in today's management and human resource-controlled corporate hierarchy. Not even the ones at the top. The reason according to Matthew B. Crawford being they are stuck in an abstract system where the relations to others become more important than what you do or create. The rules and the structures create a deadlock where no real creativity is possible. He traces this back to Taylorism and the birth of the modern industry.

Crawford argues that the almost algorithmic rules for work introduced at this stage created an environment where skilled craftsmen begun to disappear. There might have been a demand for skill, but no environment where it could thrive. Further there was no understanding of the connection between skill and creativity. This phenomenon has since spread to much of the professional world.

Shop class as soul craft is also a call for a return to practical work and craftsmanship in America. Crawford argues moreover it is more rewarding than today's office work, and that it can not be outsourced, making it a safer form of employment. In a way he may be right, there is nothing implying a pure 'knowledge-based-economy' is not another bubble. Practical work is to different degrees anchored in everyday needs. I have a very divided opinion about Shop class[…] On one hand I do agree with many of the observations. What Crawford writes about the life-draining work at a desk in some modern company is spot on, and his thoughts on the use of colleges today somewhat echo my own: why is everyone forced on to a path towards university1?

Even though I agree on much there are also things about the book bothering me. At first I thought it was just me being silly and getting annoyed at Crawford's sometimes, in my eyes, too confident style of writing. This is of course small stuff, and I should not let it come in my way of enjoying the book. Which I did for the most, but I also felt the book fell short in some other aspects. Shop class[…] sometimes present office work as demoralizing and 'bad' and practical work as something high-spirited. This is half the truth, because I believe it is not the work you perform that drain your energy at the desk. It is the environment. A programmer, for instance, can be as much a craftsman as a motorcycle mechanic. But give him enough TPS reports and creativity goes away.

So I would argue the divider is not between workbench and office-desk. It is about creativity and numb, uninspired work. As such, the divider is work allowing a skilled person - taking pride in her craft - to be creative. It is really a discussion on quality. So, we have arrived again at Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance. Shop class as soulcraft begs for the comparison. While the two books are very different in style and aim (I see Shop class as soulcraft as applied work focusing on processes where its author found meaning) they both are about quality.

I shall say like this: If Zen and the art[…] is a quest for the core of the quality concept - the idea, the platonic truth - then Shop class[…] chases the shadow - the projection, the special case. It is applied to the DIY trend of today.

Shop class as soulcraft is worth reading if you are looking for a discussion on modern work culture. I found it inspiring to read, as I am sure many other will. It is by no means a bad book, on contrary it is interesting, and it gives a very good case why practical creative work may be more rewarding than office-hell. If you are interested in the heart of the problem on the other hand, and have not yet read Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, you should start there.



Footnote: My own opinions on universities are many, and I should be brief here. For sure society needs educated people, but many go to university today to get three letters added to their names, not to gain the knowledge that those letters should represent. This deteriorates society. Further, academia is becoming a career path which I am not sure is good for science. Instead teach kids to think like a scientist when they are in elementary school. Then you have the foundations of a good society.