Although I had no intention of becoming a “Future Farmer of America,” I spent my first two years of high school taking courses in vocational agriculture (it’s just what we do in Texas). During the winter months we’d forgo the usual sheep shearing and hog castrating to work on projects more typically found in a shop class. While we were allowed free rein to rebuild truck motors or craft wooden benches, I mostly spent my time in the corner dreaming nerdy dreams.
A course catalog from Rice University had inexplicably found its way into the classroom and I treated it as a travel guide to the strange and exciting intellectual world of college. Each day I’d sit there, fantasizing about taking classes (linguistics! anthropology!) that didn’t require dealing with a band saw or hydraulic fluid.
At the time, the ivory towers of Rice seemed a million miles away from the sawdust-covered shop floor of Clarksville High. And for me they were. I wasn’t smart enough to get into Rice (those kids were really smart) so I ended up getting a college degree while taking a long tour through the world of skilled manual labor—laying plumbing with irrigators, fixing pump-jacks with oilfield electricians, remodeling houses with carpenters, and making handbrakes with factory workers. The capstone of my career as a jack-of-all tradesman was a fifteen-year stint in the Marines as an aviation electrician.
During those years I met plenty of people who found such work intellectually engaging. I just wasn’t one of them. I wanted to work with ideas. My primary ambition was to one day have a job that included air-conditioning and excluded having to scrub my hands with Lava soap. My secondary goal was to work with people who crafted abstract concepts rather than wood and metal.
My career life now exceeds my wildest expectations. Although I’m still a member of the proletariat, I now rub virtual shoulders with a broad range of intellectual and cultural elites (linguists! anthropologists!). These people read books and articles about ideas—including books and articles about how intellectually fulfilling manual labor can be.
Matthew B. Crawford’s Shop Class as Soul Craft is just such a book and his New York Times Magazine article, “The Case for Working With Your Hands,” is just such an article (the book expanded on a 2006 essay in The New Atlantis). While you aren’t likely to find them on your plumber’s bookshelf or your cabinetmaker’s workbench, you will find them on the reading lists of many of your conservative, academically inclined friends.
Crawford, who now makes a living repairing motorcycles, presents a compelling case for the intrinsic value of trade work. He forcefully argues (though it’s disappointing that such an argument even needs to be made) that manual labor requires intellect and creativity and can be both profitable and satisfying. Both the book and the article are worth reading, though his observations tend to be rather obvious (plumbers are well-paid and white-collar jobs can be dull) and as dry as an academic whitepaper (he used to work for a Washington, D.C.-based think tank). Of course, the manner is fitting since Crawford writes not for his fellow mechanics but his former grad school chums.
As every review and article about the book has taken pains to point out, Crawford has a Ph.D. in political thought from the University of Chicago. Presumably, we are expected to find this biographical fact surprising—the greasemonkey is a political philosopher!—but such a hook is to be expected. Who would publish a book on the value of manual labor if it had been written by someone who did nothing more than fix Harleys?
This is not a knock at Crawford who, from the evidence he presents in interviews, appears to be a genuinely interesting and amiable chap. He deserves praise for the insights he provides in his writings. But the buzz about the book is not really about the book. It’s about Crawford, or rather the idea that Crawford embodies: the intellectual who realizes an authentic and fulfilling life working as a manual laborer.
Like the agrarian who lives in Manhattan and reads Backwoods Home Magazine, the would-be mechanic gets to identify with Crawford’s authentic vocational turn without actually having to scrape the brake grease from under his own fingernails.
Manual laborers—who tend to have more traditional fantasies, like escaping to a life of ease on a tropical beach—will be amused by the workaholic “knowledge workers” who dream not of leisure but of trading their cubicle for the shop floor. They should not be surprised, nonetheless, since white-collar workers have long romanticized about appropriating blue-collar tropes. Academics and middle managers who want to associate themselves with the virtues of manual work are like the hipsters who wear trucker caps and drink Pabst Blue Ribbon.
While this sort of fantasy is harmless, a more highly idealized vision of manual work can lead some to believe life really is better on the farm or on the pavement of the garage. It’s one thing to dream about moving to a quiet, rural small town. But actually making such a change means neighbors less like the agrarian supermodel Wendell Berry and more like Hank Kimball, the county agent in Green Acres.
It’s not that these good country workers and manual laborers are dumb—far from it—it’s just that the mental engagement in full-time labor is not the same as the intellectual fulfillment that comes from a devoted “life of the mind.” Manual labor tends to rely on dexterity skills and concrete intuitions, while knowledge work tends to rely on language facility and concepts in the abstract. While there is some overlap between the two types of vocation, they are not interchangeable.
The differences are most profound in the way that members of the two professional groups talk about their work. There is an almost insurmountable language barrier between manual laborers and word workers. For example, my favorite outfit promoting agrarian localist thought, Front Porch Republic, once dedicated an entire week to analyzing Crawford’s book. Not surprisingly, their discussions are nothing like what you’d hear at the water cooler at your local garage. Their articles tend to read like this section, from an intelligent and thoughtful reflection by Susan McWilliams:
It seems that our national inclination to value “knowledge work” – at least as it is currently practiced – over the manual trades may, almost paradoxically, be disconnecting us from some of the most meaningful human knowledge, which is knowledge how to use speech with others to seek the truth. So to revive respect for working done with hands, as Crawford does here, may do more than that: It may revive respect for talking done with heart.
As your favorite motorcycle mechanic (the one that didn’t attend an elite college) might say, “What in the world is she talking about?” Such discussions are common on sites like Front Porch Republic and First Things, where people spend their working lives in idea factories. But as a general rule, people who work in bike shops and have names like “Joe” (which, as in my case, is not short for Joseph, but short so that it fits the little oval patch sewn on Dickies work shirts) don’t talk like that. As even Crawford’s own shop mate said about him, “Matt talked constantly about ideas while working on bikes . . . Sometimes it became hard for us to get any work done.” Indeed, such philosophical musings are often antithetical to the practical work—and earthy chit-chat—associated with real manual work. The work of the hands requires a different type of thinking than the leisure-induced musings of philosophers.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with wanting to talk about ideas, even the idea of how manual labor can lead to an intellectually fulfilling life—a theory I fully endorse. But the ideas about work proffered by agrarian academics and garage-dreaming cubicle workers are hardly the same as those of real farmers and trade workers. If we ask manual laborers to speak for themselves, we may find that they view manual work as work and shop class as a place for crafting stuff, not souls.
Joe Carter is Web Editor of First Things and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator. His previous articles for “On the Square” can be found here.
Matthew B. Crawford, Shopclass as Soulcraft (book)
Matthew B. Crawford, Shopclass as Soulcraft (essay in The New Atlantis)
Matthew B. Crawford, The Case for Working With Your Hands
Susan McWilliams, Working with Words