Friday, October 1, 2010

A Brief Review of Matthew Crawford's Shop Class as Soul Craft; The Philosopher-Mechanic and his Motorcycles

A Brief Review of Matthew Crawford's Shop Class as Soul Craft.

I'm just beginning to read my students' review of Matthew Crawford's Shop Class as Soul Craft, and so far the quality of responses has been quite good. Ideally, this book should be read alongside Kevin Borg's Auto Mechanics: the former is a philosophical discourse that nicely overlaps with the far more concrete scholarly analysis of the latter. Most fundamentally, the Crawford book uncovers some of what ails todays' society -- namely the fact that there are a large group of unhappy white collar workers (and students who aspire to join the knowledge economy) -- all of whom are ill-fitted psychologically to spend their lives are organization people confined to the cubical. Thanks in part to the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor and his Principles of Scientific Management (1911), there has been a separation of knowing from doing, and we are the worse for that process. Manual work has been degraded, the trades are to be avoided as careers, and consequently plumbers make $80/hr and will never be replaced by offshore Chinese or Indians.
There is a strong autobiographical strand in this book, and Crawford's personal story is both interesting and at times entertaining. If you have ever worked on your own motorcycle or automobile, the book will certainly resonate with you. But more importantly, this is book to be read by young people as they make those crucial decisions related to career.

Do I buy into all that Crawford says in this fast-read? Not quite. For he looks at the trades through rose colored glasses, forgetting to mention the many plumbers who are unhappy with their lives and their career choice. He also fails to account for the slippery issue of class and vocation, and the matter of self esteem and perceived social ranking. Crawford came for a thoroughly middle class family background; had he experienced blue collar life as a child, he may well have better understood why so many kids from that ladder of society wish to escape it, despite the promise that working with one's hands brings iwith it autonomy, community and self-satisfaction.

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