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 (its 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 often found in a typical shop class. While we were allowed free reign 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 strange and exciting intellectual world of college. Each day I’d sit fantasizing about taking classes (linguistics! anthropology!) that didn’t require a band saw.
At the time, the ivory towers of Rice seemed a million miles away from the sawdust covered shop floor of Clarksville High. And they were. I wasnt smart enough to get into Rice (those kids are really smart) so I ended up taking a long tour through the world of skilled manual laborlaying plumbing with irrigators, fixing pump-jacks with oilfield electricians, remodeling houses with carpenters, 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 fulfilling. I just wasnt 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. But those conditions being met, I wanted to work with people who crafted abstract concepts rather than wood and metal.
My ambitions have long since been fulfilled. 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 are the type of people who read books about ideasincluding books about how intellectually fulfilling manual labor can be.
Matt Crawford’s Shop Class as Soul Craft is just such a book. While you likely won’t find it on your plumber’s bookshelf, you will find it on the reading list of your academically inclined friends.
Crawford, who makes a living repairing motorcycles, presents a compelling case for the intrinsic value of trade work. The book is enjoyable but the observations tend to be rather obvious (plumbers get paid well, white-collar jobs can be dull) and his style tends to be as dry as an academic whitepaper (he used to work for a D.C.-based think tank). But the audience for the book is not Crawford’s fellow mechanics but his former grad school chums.
As every review and article about the book (and they are legion) takes 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 surprisingthe 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 on Crawford who, from the evidence presented in the plethora of interviews, appears to be a genuinely interesting and amiable chap. 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 couldif they really, really wantedfind 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 their own fingernails.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this romanticizing and appropriation of blue color tropes. Academics who want to associate themselves with the virtues of manual work are like the hipsters who wear trucker caps, only without the irony or Ashton Kutcher. They’re mostly harmless.
The problem comes when this type of folk-fetish fantasizing is adopted as a lifestyle choice. It’s one thing to dream about moving to the quiet, simple rural small town. But actually making such a change would entail a rude awakening when your neighbors turn out to be more like Hank Kimball than Wendell Berry .
It’s not that these good country workers are dumbfar from itits just they don’t speak academese. The language barrier between the manual laborers and the word workers is almost insurmountable. For example, my favorite localists over at Front Porch Republic have dedicated an entire week(!) to Crawford’s book. Yet their discussions are not likely to be the type of thing you’d hear at the watercooler of your local garage. Their posts tend to read like this section, from a entry 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 fellow mechanic might say, “What in the world is she talking about?” Such discussions are common on blogs like FPR (or this one). But as a general rule people who work in bike shops and have names like “Joe” (which, like 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 workand earthy chit-chatassociated with real manual work.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with wanting to talk about ideas (linguistics! anthropology!). But it doesnt necessarily fit into the lives of real trade workers. After all, shop class is a place for crafting stuff not crafting souls.