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Powells.com Interview: In Shop Class (and Beyond) with Matthew Crawford

The New York Times calls Shop Class as Soulcraft "a beautiful little book about human excellence and the way it is undervalued in contemporary America." Kyle here at Powell's calls it "an accessible, carefully reasoned examination of work and America's evolving ideas about it."

Matthew CrawfordThe author, himself, explains, "I want to suggest we can take a broader view of what a good job might consist of, and therefore what kind of education is important."

Matthew Crawford's debut has been riding our bestseller list for weeks, and rightly so. It's one of our favorite books of the year.

According to Kyle, "Whether you work with a computer (that'd be me) or power tools, Shop Class as Soulcraft will get you asking important questions about what you put into your job and, maybe more importantly, what your job gives back."

Crawford, who holds a Ph.D. in philosophy — his office at the University of Chicago was next door to J.M. Coetzee's — and now runs a motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, Virginia, spoke just days after fielding questions on The Colbert Report (a booking that speaks further to the timely and provocative nature of his book). We talked about self-reliance, tight crawl spaces, dirty jokes, and more.

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Dave: As I read it, the underlying argument of Shop Class as Soulcraft is that we do our children a disservice by assuming college is the best path for them and by writing off the trades, without regard to their disposition or prospects. Do you think the book is being read and received the way you intended?

Matthew Crawford: I think it's being read fairly enough. I want to suggest we can take a broader view of what a good job might consist of, and therefore what kind of education is important. We seem to have developed an educational monoculture, tied to a vision of what kind of work is valuable and important — everyone gets herded into a certain track where they end up working in an office, regardless of their natural bents. But some people, including some who are very smart, would rather be learning to build things or fix things. Why not honor that? I think one reason we don't is that we've had this fantasy that we're going to somehow take leave of material reality and glide around in a pure information economy.

The stuff about work has been picked up and noticed most, which makes sense given the subtitle. But there's another major thread in the book that hasn't been commented on as much: our efforts to achieve some kind of self-reliance as consumers. I think the appeal of self-reliance is deeply connected to something we look for in work: the experience of seeing a direct effect of your own actions in the world, and feeling that these actions are genuinely your own. I think the appeal of self-reliance is deeply connected to something we look for in work: the experience of seeing a direct effect of your own actions in the world, and feeling that these actions are genuinely your own.

Sometimes, working in an office, the chain of cause and effect can be confusing and opaque, and responsibility gets spread around. Meanwhile, as consumers, if you try to fix your own car nowadays, you may pop the hood and find there's another hood under the hood; there's a design trend to "hide the works." It's hard to get a handle on things. When the world lacks a basic intelligibility, it doesn’t elicit action and responsibility. The experience of individual agency can be elusive.

Dave: As a culture, we've come to value knowing "that" more than knowing "how," you propose. One passage related to that idea struck me as especially provocative:

Occupations based on universal, propositional knowledge are more prestigious, but they are also the kind that face competition from the whole world as book learning becomes more widely disseminated in the global economy.

Crawford: Here I'm repeating some arguments made by economists about what kind of work is vulnerable to getting outsourced, and using those arguments to criticize our attitudes about what kind of knowledge is important; we value theoretical knowledge over practical knowledge.

Thirty years ago, we learned that anything that can be put on a container ship is going to be made wherever labor is cheapest. In the last ten years, we've seen a similar logic applied to many of the products of intellectual labor that can be delivered over a wire. Accountants, editors, radiologists, architects — they're finding that their jobs are sometimes being done in the Philippines or in India, by people who speak very good English and are very well educated.

But the Indians can't fix your car for you, because they're in India. The Chinese can't unclog your toilet or wire your house. The insight here is that any work that has to be done on site is safe from that logic of outsourcing, and this is the case with the manual trades generally.

In my book, this economic argument is offered mostly to clear the way for, and motivate, a different sort of inquiry. The kind of thinking that goes on in the trades can be pretty impressive, if we stop to notice it. Once you notice it, you start getting into deep waters about how the mind apprehends the world in general.

Dave: "You might call Crawford a locavore of work," Michael Agger suggested in a review at Slate.com. In Shop Class, you write:

[B]y analogy with our food choices: having a motor rebuilt would correspond roughly to the decision to buy food from a local farmer versus a distant agribusiness.

But that rationale hasn't become common. People haven't yet made the connection. Not in large numbers, anyway.

Crawford: For whatever reason, food has become the big cultural issue of our time. It's a little weird. But I think it would be too easy to dismiss it by saying the bohemian consumer feels a need to construct a certain dissident self-image; I think there is a genuine public-spiritedness to it as well. The arguments for why we ought to be more mindful of the ramifications of our food choices have parallels that can illuminate the world of work.The arguments for why we ought to be more mindful of the ramifications of our food choices have parallels that can illuminate the world of work.

It may or may not make sense to have an engine rebuilt by your local mechanic, in narrow economic terms. In those terms, you may be better off buying a rebuilt engine from one of the chain auto parts stores, which get them from high-volume remanufacturing operations. These factories simply ignore the finer points that engage a mechanic's attention. (That's why they typically have a warranty of only 12,000 miles, or 36,000 at most.) But a more public-spirited calculus would include a humane regard for the kind of labor involved in each alternative: on the one side disciplined attentiveness, enlivened by a mechanic's own judgments and ethical entanglement with a motor (I explain this in the book), and on the other systematized carelessness.

Further, the decision is inherently political, because the question "who benefits?" is at stake: the internationalist order of absentee capital, or an individual possessed of personal knowledge. Our consumer choices can help sustain pockets of mindful labor. Further, since they're in the business of fixing things, mechanics represent an affront to the throwaway society. So I'd like to suggest to all the well-heeled bohemians out there, who express their cultural politics with their wallets, that the mechanic is every bit as groovy as the organic farmer, as a structural matter. He just smells different. So go ahead and splurge on a hand-built motor.

Dave: There's also something to be said for working on a piece of equipment over the course of its lifetime, being aware of the equipment's history. That's not going to happen when a motor is sent thousands of miles to an offshore remanufacturing plant.

Crawford: True. Speed shops, especially, typically see the same motor over and over; what they do is based on reputation and relationships. A machinist working at one might recognize his own writing on the counterweights of a crankshaft, in grease pen or Sharpie, noting the bearing tolerances as its journals get ground down with each rebuild. When the work is embedded in face-to-face interactions, and you're dealing with the actual user of the thing you've built or fixed, you're part of a community.

Dave: Is that your bike on the cover of the book?

Crawford: No, it belongs to a customer of mine. It's a 1967 BMW. It's kind of like riding a tractor. "Gentlemanly" would be the nice way to put it. "Slow" would be another way.

Dave: Why did you put it on the cover?

Crawford: I think it's a good-looking bike. It has a classic look to it.

Dave: In Shop Class, you write, "I offer no program, only an observation that might be of interest to anyone called upon to give guidance to the young."

Have you thought at all about addressing the young directly, as opposed to the parents or mentors of a younger generation?

Crawford: Do you mean in speeches?

Dave: By publishing another book. What made me think of it was Al Gore's children's edition of An Inconvenient Truth, which has more graphics and photographs, and text more suitable to students.

Crawford: It never occurred to me. That's an interesting idea.

Dave: Shop Class is completely accessible to people without a background in mechanics or motorcycles — or philosophy, for that matter — and that's an impressive accomplishment. But it's not aimed at a typical high school student.

Crawford: There are a lot of ten-dollar words in there, it's true. But I also think young people are bored by all the dumbed-down stuff they get in school. Something that requires a bit of head-scratching can also be stimulating.

Dave: When you were at the University of Chicago, you had an office next door to J.M. Coetzee. Did you see him much?

Crawford: I'd see him once in a while. The first time I met him, I was reading his book, Disgrace. So I said, "I'm really enjoying Disgrace."

He said, "You mean the book."

Dave: You quote a passage from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It's hard to discuss Shop Class as Soulcraft without at least referencing [Robert] Pirsig's book. When did you first read it, and what did you think of it at the time?

Crawford: Someone gave it to me. I must have been about thirteen. I loved the parts about motorcycles. The rest of it pretty much went over my head. I might have made it a hundred pages into it.

Dave: Growing up, you lived with your family on a commune. You mention in the notes at the back of Shop Class that the group moved about every six months. How did that contribute to your own education, do you think? You learned electrical work at a very young age, for one thing. You must have had a very different perspective than your peers.

Crawford: We were always renovating some dilapidated hotel or another. When I was thirteen I got drafted by the electrical crew because I was small and could fit into tight crawl spaces.When I was thirteen I got drafted by the electrical crew because I was small and could fit into tight crawl spaces. One thing I appreciate now about that upbringing is that there wasn't much separation between the adult world and the world of the kids; you were integrated into work at an early age, and it was a big part of your day.

It seems like childhood and adolescence are really prolonged in our society, and kids exist in their own youth culture, one that is largely manufactured for them by mass commercial interests. It persists all the way through college. Then you graduate and there's this big shock of going to work — it sucks! If the work itself has an unreal quality to it, maybe entertainment becomes the standard against which you judge it.

Dave: The argument you present in Shop Class is based to a large degree on the intellectual challenges inherent in trade vocations. Meanwhile, at least one critic has called out your acceptance of what could be described as a vulgar culture among tradesman.

One could argue that the sexual insults and jokes, what you refer to (within the context of the paragraph) as "real depravity" and "moral turpitude," doesn't that atmosphere help perpetuate some of the stereotypes that persist about this kind of work?

Crawford: Dirty jokes are always a delicate matter and require a large matter of trust. It's a finesse thing. But that's precisely why I think the question of whether or not they're permissible is valuable as an index of the level of trust in a workplace. I think trust, in turn, depends to some degree on having recourse to objective standards. That's often what's lacking in an office. If you have a problem with your boss, you can’t say, "It's plumb, level, and square — check it, yourself." You're never sure where you stand, so you have to spend a lot of time managing what other people think of you. It can be a paranoid place.

In the book I suggest that some of the sensitivities of speech in that kind of environment — the higher self-regulation that is required — is due to its interpretive pliability, and corresponding insecurity. I find the job site a friendlier, less paranoid place than the office.

Dave: A related question... Actually, it's not so related. You write in the book, "The curious man is always a fornicator, according to Saint Augustine." What does that mean?

Crawford: Pursuing your own curiosity while ignoring the wider ramifications of your inquiry... That's the danger that theory (as opposed to practical prudence) is always prone to. It's something like sex that's devoid of concern for the other person, which risks degrading that other person, using him or her simply as a means to your own pleasure.

I quoted that line because I thought it was funny, and now you're forcing me to think about it!

Dave: I did guess something along the lines of what you describe, but you can't use the words "fornication" and "Saint Augustine" in the same sentence without attracting attention.

Crawford: I think Augustine is talking about the problem of self-absorption, and that's one of the major threads through the book.

Dave: You do write about that at length. "Fixing things may be a cure for narcissism," for example. Recognizing that the rest of the world doesn't depend on your vision of it.

Crawford: Connected to that, right, is this ethical component.

If you're working in the trades, when things go badly, it's very hard to BS your way out of the situation. If you're working in the trades, when things go badly, it's very hard to BS your way out of the situation. When you're dealing with something concrete that lets you know right away when you've screwed up, you develop habits of paying attention to what you're doing. You can get physically hurt, or somebody else could, and this tends to focus the mind.

Not that this necessarily makes you a good person, but it does serve as a counterweight to the delusion of omnipotence that is pretty widespread in modern life. It's a delusion that is actively cultivated in consumer culture.

Dave: In the acknowledgements, you refer to a book that I assume is forthcoming, The Organ Maker's Shop. Is that the case?

Crawford: That remains to be seen. I spent a fair amount of time at this shop that makes pipe organs. I learned a tremendous amount. It was originally going to be two long chapters in Shop Class — in some ways, it felt like the best part, but I cut them out because it seemed to be going off in a different direction and needed to become its own thing. Whether it'll actually become a book or not, we'll see.

Matthew Crawford spoke on July 1, 2009.

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Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.


Books mentioned in this post

  1. Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry...
    Used Hardcover $6.95
  2. Disgrace
    Used Trade Paper $5.95
  3. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle...
    Used Mass Market $5.50


Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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