Shop Class As Soulcraft
Even though it was several years ago, it’s a conversation I remember well: talking with my friend Scott about how bored we with our office jobs (I had quit mine earlier that year) and how much we preferred making things with our hands. I was surprised how much I liked making stained glass windows and rudimentary furniture, particularly thinking my way around any unexpected problems. Scott grew up in a garage and built his own Volkswagon convertible in high school but had spent much of his adult life as a manager.
It’s a feeling Matthew Crawford knows well. After getting his Ph.D. in political philosophy, Crawford landed a high paying job at a Washington think tank…and quit ten months later to repair motorcycles. Shop Class As Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work is his explanation of why he quit and an examination of how the emphasis on white-collar jobs has affected people. It’s ultimately a contemplation of what makes work meaningful to the individual doing it.
Crawford argues that even as office jobs are being outsourced overseas, the work of mechanics and craftsman has to stay local. Things always break and you will need someone to fix them. If your car is broken, you’re not going to ship it to India to have it fixed.
I think the rise of office work had a lot to do with class snobbery. Middle-class people had jobs in which they didn’t get dirty. Lower class people got dirty. Working in an office with your mind was seen as more civilized, more dignified, than working on machines with your hands. Despite how our economy has changed and the decline in office work, it still seems uncommon for someone with an education to willingly chose blue collar work. But Crawford writes how thinking is involved in such work. It’s a different kind of thinking, more intuitive, more self-reliant.
When I was in school, we rotated between three different shop classes: woodshop, mechanical drawing, and print shop. I don’t recall getting much in the way of instruction in mechanical drawing. I think our teacher, an egg-shaped man, probably thought “why bother?” It was obvious our college-bound class (this was only eighth grade but the kids destined for college were already separated from those who were not) were never going to pursue mechanical drawing. The only thing for the teacher to do was the bare minimum until kids in class fulfilled their requirement, hit them when they got out of line and then never see them again. I didn’t have much aptitude for woodshop and I was convinced I was going to lose a finger in one of the machines. But it was in print shop that I finally understood the concept of having to work and being graded.
The assignment was to make notepads, a process that involved creating a design (which had to include “From The Desk Of,” your name, some sort of border and a picture, which could either be chosen from design books or made with a Photostat), making a metal plate of your design, then printing a number of pads. I made two pad designs: one had the Yellow Submarine on it (in black and white, of course) and the other had an Apple Bonker. Because thought what I was doing was so cool and because of what I was like at 13, I didn’t pay much (read “any”) attention to quality control. I made a pad with the Yellow Submarine on it! It was the only one like it in the world. No-one else had one. Our teacher graded our work surrounded by everyone in the class, not to humiliate but to demonstrate mistakes to watch out for. He took out a pen and mercilessly circled each imperfection, every mark made by a dirt on the metal plate, every flaw accentuated by the printing process. Each mark cost a third of a grade. If I remember correctly, I got a low B on the assignment. But as he ticked my grade down and down, I had, for the first time, the realization that I would have to work, that I wasn’t going to get a pass just because I had come up with the coolest thing. More than a mediocre grade on any test, those circles on my notepads demonstrated the idea of standards that I would have to measure up to or fail. It was the first time I “got” it; it was the first time I cared.
However, lowered grade because I didn’t understand work notwithstanding, I had made something unique in the world and was always proud that my father, who had the same name as I, used the pads in his classroom at school.
I initially began this paragraph with the sentence “It’s hard to think of anything I’ve done in my office job that has made me proud” but that’s not true. I’m proud of the annual reports that we’ve done. Not because they’re outstanding in any way (they're not) but because I spend a lot of time making sure they are free of mistakes, even if they’re mistakes other people would never notice. When we finally send them to print, I’m usually exhausted but feel a sense of accomplishment. This example is part of Crawford’s argument: that work has more meaning when you are creating a physical product, particularly if it is from start to finish. Dealing with products that exist to you only as theoretical concepts robs your job of meaning and introduces a certain nihilism, similar to my mechanical drawing teacher who couldn’t see the point of teaching students who existed only as names in his gradebook rather than as people who might be interested.
Last night I was reading the conclusion of Shop Class As Soulcraft while having dinner at a local bar. While I was there, the man who fixes their pinball machine came in and I got to watch him work, which was fascinating in the way that competence in a field you know nothing about always is. I had never seen the insides of a pinball machine before and loved its mix of the mechanical and the electronic. The man had trouble walking, even with a cane; it was as if his legs were at the wrong angle to his body. But he was able to move quickly around the pinball machine and had it fixed in less than twenty minutes. I’m aware he sounds like a fictional character and a clichéd one at that, but there he was. I asked how he had learned to fix pinball machines. He said that he just started playing around with them, trying to figure out how they worked, and began fixing them, so that now everyone calls him if there is a problem. Watching him figure out what was wrong with the machine, test his idea, repeat to make sure he was right, I saw someone who was less at work and more at play.