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.