Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew Crawford

Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of WorkTakeaway: There are pleasures and value in physical labor that should not be degraded.

The best line in Shop Class as Soulcraft is “Work is toilsome and necessarily serves someone else’s interest.  That’s why you get paid.”  That bit is wisdom is important.  Work is not designed to be the great fulfillment in life.  But work can be fulfilling.

This book as a whole has a very interesting point.  An the author, using his own very interesting work history, is a great example.  Crawford has worked as a mechanic (and currently works as a mechanic in his own shop), an electrician, the head of a Washington think tank, and a ‘knowledge worker’.  He has a PhD from University of Chicago but learn mechanics from the apprenticeship that is common of the physical trades.

Crawford is best when he is explicating his own personal history.  The sections that delve into philosophy and political theory are fascinating and occasionally difficult to read.  (Many of the negative reviews on Amazon mention that the book is a hard read.)  I do not alway buy into his theorizing, but he brings up some fascinating points about what the purpose of work is all about and why we have a system of economics that does not seem to take into account the human rationales of work.

One of the good points is that ‘Time is money’ take on why you should not fix your own car, or mow your own lawn fails to take into account that different works has different internal value.  If you love gardening, then working in your yard is a pleasure, not a chore.  In work, tinkering around with your car, or building your own furniture, may give you internal pleasure or a sense of accomplishment.  But it may also lead to a different way of thinking about another problem completely unrelated to the original task.  This is the similar to the ideas from Frans Johansson in Medici Effect that innovation comes as a result of the interaction of diverse fields.

But at times he misses the point of some innovation.  He complains that infrared sinks are primarily about becoming more complicated and saving water.  But I think most, or at many, prefer infrared sinks because of the germ factor.  Innovations are not merely about one issue.  There are often many issues make up innovation.  He is right to notes that not all innovation is good.  That we need to uphold the value of human work and that some innovation is actually both bad for people and bad for the environment and bad for the bottom line.

There are some interesting corrections to history.  I have always heard that Henry Ford increased wages so he could get the best employees.  According to Crawford, this was a happy byproduct.  He actually needed to increase wages because most people refused to work an assembly line.  The skilled workers of the era were used to creating a whole product and most quit because the viewed the work as demeaning.  Ford was forced to increase wages to keep employees.  Once he increased wages, the workers worked hard to keep these unusually high paying jobs and were willing to do things that others were not.  It was that point that production started dramatically increasing.

On the whole, I am glad that Crawford is defending the value working with your hands.  Crawford rightly points out that many manual labor jobs are both mentally fulfilling and better paid than many office jobs.  Not everyone should automatically go to college.  The apprenticeship model of training is actually much better for many jobs, and better for a variety of learning styles.

Crawford does not ever really get to the soul craft part of his title.  I wish that he had.  Even though it is not a perfect book, I would like to read it again and talk it over with some others.  He raises valuable question and some good answers.


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