Thursday, November 7, 2013

Damn The Office Torpedoes

For better or worse, I am a product of public school education. Where I attended public school, there were few schooling options –the private, parochial school where the financially better-off sent their kids, or the public school. There were a few elementary schools dotted throughout the city neighborhoods, and then one public middle school and one public high school.

Back in the day, we were offered a public education that included elective “vocational” courses. General art class and band, while not technically considered vocational, were open to every student (and I won’t discuss what transpired when I came home with the violin; conversely, I was rather proud of all the hand ceramics I created while listening over and over and over to the Best of Bread album), as well as typing (yes, on an actual, manual typewriter) and the basics of business finances - spreadsheets and the like.
Then there were those courses that were gender segregated: sewing and cooking for girls, woodworking and shop class for the guys. While I wasn’t too interested in the latter, I also wasn’t too keen on the sewing class, but it came part and parcel with the cooking, in which I was very interested, so I struggled through seaming a pair of pants that no self-respecting teen would ever wear, and counted the class sessions left until the measuring and rolling could begin.

It was fairly well established that one took the vocational courses (especially shop and woodworking) if a student wasn’t on the universally agreed-as-better-for-future-prospects college-prep track. Since I was whizzing my way through AP English, French and Latin (oh, the verbs I conjugated), my time in cooking class was seen as pure fluff. Such is the long and winding (and expensive) road of the designer.

We internalize the popularly expressed value of work at a very early age. What all the adults pushed was the grand and glorious benefits of college, and then only a certain type of college experience, one which didn’t (and still doesn’t, really) include getting one’s hands literally or figuratively dirty. Enter Matthew B. Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft, a brilliant polemic against the prevailing wisdom that everyone must be an information worker in order to have and engage in work that has societal value.

Crawford, with a Ph.D. in political philosophy and ownership of his own motorcycle repair business, makes the argument for the “useful arts” – his classification for carpentry, plumbing, electrical work and mechanical repair. Using his own rather colorful personal story, Crawford recounts his disengagement from that of information worker to transformation to shop owner where he shoulders the responsibilities of, as well as fully engages with, the uniquely complete sense of accomplishment felt when he accurately diagnoses and repairs a mechanical issue. As someone who solves construction problems almost daily (and then memorializes those solutions for the general public – you know, pattern writing), I readily identify with this sense of accomplishment.

Crawford is at his most sarcastically brilliant in the chapter “The Contradictions of the Cubicle,” devoted to his short time as an articles indexer.  The opening paragraph pretty much lays it out:

The popularity of Dilbert, The Office, and any number of other pop-culture windows on cubicle life attests to the dark absurdism with which many Americans have come to view their white-collar work. 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 … it is impossible to make sense of the [modern] 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.”

As someone who has spent most of my adult working life in offices of many stripes, I read this chapter and kept wanting to hit the imaginary solidarity bell and yell out “ding, ding, ding.” If truth be told, I probably did do that on several occasions. And if I am kneeling at the truth altar, I must admit my brief complicity with and performance in this absurdist dance while a design school instructor. How many former students groaned at the mention of the dreaded group project? Yes, that was me attempting to instill a particular value – damn the torpedoes, and all that.

Neither Crawford nor I are in any way suggesting a disengagement from society and community – far from it. In fact, Crawford makes the convincing case that as a small business owner in the business of dealing with the real-world mechanical problems of his clients (most from his very own backyard), he gets to see the consequences of his work up close and personal just about most days. This provides him an opportunity not only to get better at his art, but to reap the benefits of such a community presence.

Of course, Crawford writes what he knows – he is a white guy and the book reflects that fact, which leads to my biggest criticism of it. In many passages, he describes his willingness to learn at the hands of those with more experience (of course, other guys), yet makes many derogatory references (backhanded and otherwise) to maternalism and catty female attitudes and behaviors. I wonder if he would have been such a willing student if the teacher had been an attractive female, or if a woman telling an off-color workplace joke at his expense might not make him just a tad uncomfortable. I do note that his references to maternalism stem more from a place of raising the status of self-reliance over dependence as opposed to someone dissing a perspective based purely on gender, yet that independent spirit he wishes to foster - which has a very rich history in this country - has been held and espoused by (mostly) old white guys.
In the end, Crawford is advocating a particular kind of agency and freedom - one which fosters thinking for oneself as well as true diversity of mind and action, no stifling office trappings attached. He describes it as a sort of neo-republicanism. I'm certain my terminal degree informs my stance that I'm not willing to use such a loaded classification, but of course I do not possess a Ph.D. in political philosophy. All I know is that once you strip away all the jargon, Crawford lives a life that just makes sense, and accessibly describes it in Shop Class as Soulcraft. It is a way of being in the world that deserves its rightful place amidst what we value.


  1. Wow. What a post, almost like a mini dissertation. From what I got, I think he's got a point. Using your hands in old school trades is important. You are taught skills that have extreme value. There are kids out there who would benefit from experiences in such fields.
    Also, as a knitter, I do feel great satisfaction from making something out of fiber from scratch. There's inner pride when I have a useful outcome and the recipient is happy and appreciative of the time and effort I put into it.

  2. I read all the way to the bottom and still no yarn photos! I don't know where we'd be without blue collar workers building things, repairing things, and getting things done. My DH is one because college simply wasn't an option for his family. I don't see it as a negative thing and I don't think he does, either.

    1. But at least there's crochet hooks up top ... :)

      I hear you about not seeing it as a negative, but in every aspect of society (from the White House on down), the perceived way to upward mobility is a certain kind of college education - the 4 year kind that leads to, in many instances, grad school and office life. I have an advanced degree and I'm very proud of it, but my college career has been very non-traditional. I did not complete a degree straight out of h.s. I think there are many ways to slice this apple, and I would urge you to pick up a copy of Crawford's book - he's got an intriguing personal story.

  3. Very interesting, I enjoyed that :)

  4. My public school experience was very similar to yours, although I did enjoy the sewing part ;-) ..,. band, choir, a little art... I was very interested in wood and metal shop, but "girls didn't do that sort of thing."

    I should read this book.

    1. You definitely should read it. It's a quick, interesting read and really makes one think about the stultifying character of office life.

      And yes, girls definitely didn't do shop or woodworking. Dang.

  5. One thing I like about Australia is the lack of snottiness towards blue-collar workers, unlike the British… in fact, sometimes it's the opposite. I wish there were more craft related subjects in the curriculum, children need to learn where "stuff" comes from these days. Bravo for the post!