[The Montana Professor 21.2, Spring 2011 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

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

Matthew B. Crawford
NY: Penguin Books, 2009
256 pp., $15.00 pb

Richard E. Walton
Philosophy (Emeritus)

Editor's Note: the author wishes to dedicate this review in gratitude and respect to the memory of Florence L. Hunter (1901-1995), English teacher ne plus ultra, Harlem, Montana, H.S., 1945-1967.

If this title has a familiar ring to it you may count yourself among the few who have at least a passing acquaintance with an important old book by George F. Will, Statecraft as Soulcraft: What Government Does (1983). The resemblance of titles appears to be entirely accidental, however. Crawford never mentions Will, much less does he cite any of his works. (He does quote favorably UM-Missoula's Regents Professor of Philosophy Albert Borgmann, however.) Will's book, developed from his Godkin Lectures at Harvard University in 1981, is a contribution to contemporary political philosophy. Crawford means to advance our understanding of a philosophical question more basic than those of political theory per se, viz., What is the good life for human beings?/1/ His answer, in short, is that the good life is obtained through investment of ourselves in the kind of work that brings us into intimate contact with reality, especially, then, skilled manual labor. In making his case Crawford hearkens back to a much older philosophical tradition than the one which now owns the fee of the current climate of opinion about such questions in the Western democracies. The result is a book of great importance, one eminently worth a careful reading, but one that requires for its full appreciation more background in philosophy than most readers are likely to have, as well as some first-hand acquaintance with the skilled trades.

Crawford's book poses a challenge to a reviewer because it does not fit neatly into any of the familiar patterns we see in philosophical works on the kind of topic it addresses. He does not offer a thematic and sustained argument; rather, we have both argument and reflection, interspersed with no small amount of autobiography. The result is a book that is an important contribution to social, political, and moral philosophy—in which one must contend with occasional illustrations of motorcycle parts.

Crawford is the son of a physicist, but at the age when we would normally expect a bright physicist's son to be immersed in advanced mathematics and one or another of the sciences Crawford wrangled himself a part-time job in a garage in order to pursue his passion for...cars. He acquired a 1963 Volkswagen Beetle and undertook the task of first rehabilitating it, and then making the kind of improvements car buffs call "customizing"; in Crawford's case that meant bringing the old Beetle up to race standards. In the course of doing this work he became acquainted with principal characters in the Bay Area racing scene, developing a great deal of admiration for their knowledge and skills. He encountered fully, and for the first time, craftsmanship, and the admirable human characteristics that the craftsman typically possesses. Thus began an educational journey which led through a bachelor's degree in physics and a Ph.D. in political philosophy, the latter from The University of Chicago, a position as director of a Washington, D.C., think tank, and, finally, owner and chief mechanic of a motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, Virginia.

Crawford's book may profitably be understood to be his attempt to understand and justify his peculiar and apparently paradoxical career. He writes: "This book grows out of an attempt to understand the greater sense of agency and competence I have always felt doing manual work, compared to other jobs that were officially recognized as 'knowledge work.' Perhaps most surprisingly, I often find manual work more engaging intellectually. This book is an attempt to understand why this should be so" (5). To a significant extent, then, the book is autobiographical. For example, there are 8 chapters, plus an afterword, and at the book's center lie chapters 4 and 5, "The Education of a Gearhead," and "The Further Education of a Gearhead; From Amateur to Professional." It would be a serious mistake, however, to regard the book as a mere apologia pro vita sua for a rather odd contemporary vita. Crawford casts a keen critical eye on American work life and related aspects of our culture, offering valuable insights not to be found elsewhere.

Crawford begins his argument lamenting an educational development of which most readers will be happily unaware. Shop classes have largely disappeared from U.S. high school curricula./2/ The rationale for this remarkable change is the belief on the part of school authorities that the manual arts are outmoded because we now live in an "information economy" where we are all to be—astonishingly—"knowledge workers." Skilled manual labor has become obsolete, these visionaries believe, and it is demeaning besides. The flaws in thinking here are reasonably obvious, especially to anyone who owns an automobile and has spent a few years in front of college classes. One flaw in our educators' thinking, however, is not at all obvious: skilled manual work is deeply satisfying, Crawford argues, and is intellectually challenging, as well. So-called "knowledge work" Crawford found to be quite unsatisfying and tainted with essential strains of unreality and dishonesty. Here his argument becomes very interesting.

Given just this much about Crawford's claims an acquaintance with what A.N. Whitehead called "the Romantic reaction" over the last 150 years, or more, would lead a reader to suppose that Crawford recommends a return to a simple life based upon the practice of crafts pursued at a high level. But that is not his position at all. "I also have little interest in wistful notions of a 'simpler' life that is somehow more authentic, or more democratically valorous for being 'working class.' I do, in fact, want to rehabilitate the honor of the trades, as being choice-worthy work, but to do so from within my own experience, which I find is not illuminated by any of these fraught cultural ideals" (6). Crawford's example of the skilled manual worker is not the lone artisan building fine, hand-crafted furniture in his shop, but the humble repairman, the person who fixes your refrigerator, your toilet, or your...motorcycle. What could it be about such work that would make it more worthy as the central component of a life than the "knowledge work" our school administrators see us destined for?

Crawford's answer to this question is built upon a critique of certain failures in the structure of contemporary life, on the one hand, and an analysis of the central features of the repairman's work in the light of some weighty philosophical propositions, on the other. The alienation which is a standard theme in complaints about modern life of the last 90 years, or so, Crawford sees as a lack of genuine agency, i.e., the ability to act in such a way as to shape the world we inhabit in some meaningful and apparent way. Certainly, such agency was a basic feature of life in simpler times. The frontier farmer grew much of his family's food and obtained some of the rest by hunting, gathering and, perhaps, fishing. Much of that food was preserved by home processing. Clothing was made in the home. Hence, the happiness—the success—of the family lay to an important extent in its members' hands. Today, says Crawford, we suffer from the lack of agency in this sense. We are typically unable to see in the results of our labors any effects which we can unequivocally call beneficial, and for which we can fairly claim credit. "...[The] struggle for individual agency...I find to be at the very center of modern life" (7).

We who enjoy the material largesse of life in the Western democracies, that political and cultural space often referred to as "the developed world," exercise only a simulacrum of agency: we buy things of our choosing, thereby expressing our individuality and putting "our stamp on the world" (205). Thus do we express our freedom, the essence of our human nature (according to prevailing liberal doctrine), acquiring by such imperious actions things most of which we do not understand and could not repair or improve even if we were so inclined. Hence, from freedom comes bondage. We are not, as Crawford puts it, "masters of our own stuff."

Contrast the satisfied modern citizen with "the spirited man":

It is characteristic of the spirited man that he takes an expansive view of the boundary of his own stuff—he tends to act as though any material things he uses are in some sense properly his, while he is using them—and when he finds himself in public spaces that seem contrived to break the connection between his will and his environment, as though he had no hands, this brings out a certain hostility in him. Consider the angry feeling that bubbles up in this person when, in a public bathroom, he finds himself waving his hands under the faucet, trying to elicit a few seconds of water from it in a futile rain dance of guessed-at mudras. This man would like to know: Why should there not be a handle? Instead he is asked to supplicate invisible powers.

It's true, some people fail to turn off a manual faucet. With its blanket presumption of irresponsibility, the infrared faucet doesn't merely respond to this fact, it installs it, giving it the status of normalcy. There is a kind of infantilization at work, and it offends the spirited personality. (55-56)

Now we may say that Crawford's critique of modern life boils down to this: we have built for ourselves a world in which the person of spirit is no longer at home. So what? Is this not perhaps a good thing? And what of the benefit of being disburdened of the responsibility of turning off faucets, flushing toilets, and checking the oil level in our automobile engines? Our everyday interaction with such things, Crawford maintains, has the effect of inculcating a sense of irresponsibility, a matter of great moral significance. Such is the case also with modern work, which is similarly defined so as to diminish or even eliminate the individual worker's actual agency, and, hence, his, or her, responsibility. "We have to wonder, then, whether degraded work entails not just dumbing down but also a certain unintended moral reeducation" (101).

What, then, ought authentic work be like, according to our philosopher-motorcycle repairman? Plainly, it will be characterized through and through by responsibility, requiring that virtue for its performance, and inculcating and reinforcing the virtue in its execution. His detailed answer draws most heavily upon the thought of two major contemporary philosophers, Michael Polanyi and Alasdair MacIntyre./3/

Polanyi was a leading chemist who was drawn to philosophical questions in part by his experience of political oppression, both in his native Hungary and later in Nazi Germany. He is best known for his ingenious explanation of scientific discovery, which depends, he asserted, on what he called "tacit knowledge," i.e., knowledge that is not expressed in propositions and for the most part cannot be so expressed. It manifests itself in scientific discovery in the form of hunches and intuitions, inchoate knowledge which bridges the gap between what is known and explicit and what is not yet so known. Crawford argues that skilled manual work rests upon a regimen of tacit knowledge, whose existence in part explains the intellectual satisfaction to be found in such work. Tacit knowledge may be gained only through disciplined, attentive experience, the very sort of thing that Crawford saw in the skilled mechanics with whom he became acquainted as a teenager, and which he now values in his colleagues in the business of motorcycle repair.

Behind some of the more trenchant passages in the book one familiar with Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue must see MacIntyre's shadow. MacIntyre gives us the concept of a practice and defines virtue in the context of practices. That definition, in turn, depends upon the distinction MacIntyre makes between goods internal to a practice, and goods external to it./4/ Goods internal to a practice are obtainable only through engaging in the practice; those external to the practice may be obtained as a byproduct of the practice, but may also be obtained by other means. The imposition of demands for external goods corrupts practices. Crawford makes this point in reference to his experience as a "knowledge worker" who wrote abstracts of articles for a company that sold the abstracts to another company for publication. His employer imposed unrealistic quotas on him and had no care for the accuracy of what he produced. "What I want to emphasize is that the presence of this third party seeking to maximize a surplus skimmed from my labor, in a manner not sensitive to the limitations of pace arising from the nature of the work itself, must drive the work process beyond those limits. It is then all but guaranteed that the work cannot be animated by the goods that are intrinsic to it. It is these intrinsic goods of the work that make me want to do it well" (137)./5/ Thus, work that conforms to our nature as human beings, that is capable of being profoundly satisfying, must fall out as practices and be work in which one can successfully pursue a practice's internal goods. Such is the work of the skilled trades, according to Crawford./6/ The good life is a life significantly devoted to such internal goods, accompanied by manifest benefit to others of one's devotion.

There is a good deal more in this book than the space of a review permits me to notice, much less to summarize; but I cannot leave off without mention of two passages. First, a single sentence from his important aside on the character of contemporary higher education, one which refers to a claim we in the MUS have heard often from those who govern our work./7/ "...[T]he technocratic/meritocratic view of education treats it as instrumental—it is good for society, and for getting ahead—and this has a corrupting effect on genuine education" (147). Next, a careful reader will readily see that Crawford's argument has political implications, as well as the moral ones which are near its surface. What might he have to say of political significance? He refers to the well-known chapter in Alexis de Tocqueville's second volume of Democracy in America in which de Tocqueville considers the possibility of American democracy's yielding to despotism. It will be a "soft" despotism, de Tocqueville says, one that "...would be more extensive and milder, and it would degrade men without tormenting them."/8/ This mild despotism would come about, he argues, when government becomes "...an immense tutelary power...which alone takes charge of assuring [citizens'] enjoyments and watching over their fate."/9/ Crawford writes: "Tocqueville also saw a remedy for this evil, however: the small commercial enterprise, in which Americans reason together to solve some practical problem among themselves. I believe this remedy remains valid, especially if the enterprise provides a good or service with objective standards, as these may serve as the basis for social relations within the enterprise that are nonmanipulative/10/ in character" (155).

Has the book any shortcomings, then—aside, that is, from demanding for its full appreciation a considerable extent of philosophical knowledge and some authentic experience of skilled manual labor? I think there are two, one minor and the other quite large.

In his second chapter, "The Separation of Thinking from Doing," midway in his account of the corruption of our concepts of work, Crawford writes: "It seems to be our liberal political instincts that push us in this direction of centralizing authority: we distrust authority in the hands of individuals. With its reverence for neutral process, liberalism is, by design, a politics of irresponsibility" (45). Rather curiously, for a scholar in the history of political philosophy, Crawford seems to me to make a mistake in attributing the press toward centralization of authority to liberalism, properly so called. The classical liberals sought precisely the opposite; hence, the architecture of our American Constitution with its multi-dimensional division of powers and countervailing forces. We in the United States are rather sloppy in our prevailing, workaday political nomenclature. In particular, we fail to make a distinction between classical liberalism, the liberalism of the early modern political philosophers and such practical politicians as those to whom we refer as "the Founders," and contemporary American liberalism, which evolved out of classical liberalism by melding with the Progressive Movement. Among the progeny of that marriage we must include a doctrine of excessive faith in the availability and power of expertise, which results in the devaluing of responsibility in two ways. First, the expert is not regarded as an expert for the exercise of judgment, but for skill at calculation. Calculation produces indisputable results for which the expert bears no responsibility, he, or she, being merely the power that turns the calculator's crank, so to speak. Second, responsibility is assigned exclusively to experts by this scheme, lifting it from those thought lacking expertise, viz., the ordinary persons affected by the results of the expert's calculations. What the expert determines is to be done, is, literally, none of the ordinary person's affair. The result is not what the Progressives expected, i.e., the placement of responsibility for carrying out the public's business in the hands of those with the knowledge to do it well, but the very dissipation of responsibility.

Crawford's more significant error, I think, is his own devaluation by neglect of the intellectual practices. Granted that these, like the trades and other forms of work, have suffered corruption in the past century or so, still, these practices, properly undertaken and carried out, have the same desirable characteristics as the skilled trades Crawford admires. I speak here as one who has enjoyed the benefit of experience of both, for my own history has something in common with Crawford's. When I was at the age when he was obsessed with customizing his Volkswagen Beetle, I was tinkering with old Fords and Chevys, making a nuisance of myself at the local garages, picking the mechanics' brains for help in doing a simple engine tune-up, or a complete motor overhaul, and begging the loan of tools beyond my means of owning./11/ Upon graduation from high school I took a job in the local Chevrolet dealer's shop, hoping to learn from the man who was reputed to be the best mechanic in town. I quit in disgust after just a few months because I was given no opportunity to learn anything more than how to do a grease job and an oil change, and to sweep the shop floor. At carpentry I made much more progress. Both my maternal grandfather and my father were carpenters, and my father was a fine cabinetmaker. I was called upon to work with them from the time I was no more than 12. I know well what Crawford means when he speaks of the absolute authority of a carpenter's level. He is quite right in what he says about the intractability of the material with which the skilled tradesman works, and the authority of the goal for which the tradesman strives in each particular case. Crawford says, "...to be a good mechanic you have to be constantly attentive to the possibility that you may be mistaken. This is an ethical virtue." About that he is absolutely correct, and the same can certainly be said for carpentry. But it can also be said for scholarship, properly so called. As scholars, readers of the Platonic Dialogues or other great texts, for example, we must indeed be constantly aware of the possibility of misinterpretation, and check our reading against the text, and check again. As Crawford says of motorcycle repair, "Getting it right demands that you be attentive in the way of a conversation rather than assertive in the way of a demonstration" (82).

I am rather mystified as to why Crawford does not leaven his analysis with sufficient attention to the commonality between the skilled trades as he describes them, and properly practiced scholarship. He clearly sees that commonality. Speaking of advising a young person, he writes, "...if you are attracted to the most difficult books out of an urgent need, and can spare four years to devote yourself to them, go to college. In fact, approach college in the spirit of craftsmanship, going deep into liberal arts and sciences" (53). Perhaps, then, he simply chose not to develop that implication of his analysis of work in this book. After all, it's a different fox he is hounding here; he means primarily to "...speak up for an ideal that is timeless but finds little accommodation today: manual competence, and the stance it entails toward the built, material world" (2). We have license to hope, therefore, that in a book to come he will take up with the deficiencies of the present day intellectual disciplines, and we will be treated to passages analogous to the following (7): "What sort of personality does one need to have, as a twenty-first-century mechanic, to tolerate the layers of electronic bullshit that get piled on top of machines?"


  1. This may also be regarded as the very first question of political philosophy.[Back]
  2. That information may solve a puzzle for me. For more than 30 years I lived near Missoula's Sentinel High School and sometimes walked or rode my bicycle through the back of the school grounds, passing just behind a portion of the shop area, where I often observed students at work welding, bending and fitting sheet metal, disassembling automobile engines, and engaged in similar activities. One day passing through about 10 years ago I noticed that all the shop equipment was gone, replaced by exercise machines of the sort used by athletes. What happened to the shop class?[Back]
  3. Crawford indicates his indebtedness to MacIntyre only in his "Acknowledgments", p. 213, never citing his work in the several places where he makes use of it. The quotations from Albert Borgmann that I mentioned in the opening lines of this review occur on pp. 65-66.[Back]
  4. I discussed this distinction in a paper published in this journal some years ago. Richard E. Walton, "Notes on Academic Responsibility," 8.1 (Winter 1998), available at http://mtprof.msun.edu/Win1998/Walton.html.[Back]
  5. Also see p. 181, where the language of internal and external goods reappears.[Back]
  6. See the whole of chapter 8.[Back]
  7. "Interlude: What College Is For", pp. 143-148, in Ch. 6, "The Contradictions of the Cubicle."[Back]
  8. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. II, Part Four, Ch. 6, trans. Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), 662.[Back]
  9. Ibid., 663.[Back]
  10. A term likely drawn from MacIntyre's After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (1981, 1984), chapter 3.[Back]
  11. One such coveted implement was a torque wrench, a tool necessary for setting certain engine bolts to proper tension. When beseeching an old mechanic for the loan of his torque wrench one day he dismissed me with, "You don't need no torque wrench. Just tighten up them bolts to just a half a turn before they break. That'll be just right."[Back]

[The Montana Professor 21.2, Spring 2011 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

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