Book of the Month

Back to July 2014 Ed Reporter

Book of the Month

Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, Matthew B. Crawford, Penguin Books, 2009, $16.00.

Shop Class as Soulcraft offers a compelling look at education and career choice. The author holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Chicago and owns and operates a motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, Virginia. He laments the disappearance of vocational education from high schools.

While debunking the idea that college is for everyone, Crawford extols the value of finding “work that is fitting.” He writes that “there is much talk of ‘diversity’ in education” but there is not much allowance for “the diversity of dispositions.” He states that not every student is suited for college or desires the sort of job one gets after college.

Crawford concedes that “maybe higher education is indispensable to prepare students for the jobs of the information economy,” but not for the reasons we’d like to believe. Rather, he claims that “college habituates young people to accept as the normal course of things a mismatch between . . . official representations and reality.” He says, “The contemporary office requires the development of a self that is ready for teamwork, rooted in shared habits of flexibility rather than strong individual character.”

Drawing on his experiences as the head of a think tank and as a technical writer, Crawford submits that office workers can become “a cog in the intellectual technology, rather than a thinking person.” He criticizes risk-averse, team-focused jobs for which there is no measured right or wrong outcome.

That is in distinct contrast to the author’s work as a motorcycle mechanic and to other jobs in trades where there are objective and “readily apparent measures of accuracy.” It is entirely up to the mechanic to determine how to make the bike work; he has a direct obligation to his customer; and, in the end, there’s no such thing as “good enough.” Either the bike runs right or it does not. He writes, “to be a good mechanic you have to be constantly attentive to the possibility that you may be mistaken.” Crawford claims that this gives “ethical virtue” to the work and is also “an affront to the throw away society,” while offering “a counterweight to the culture of narcissism.”

Offering a fresh approach to “do what you love,” this book suggests “a tighter connection between life and livelihood” that may result in more students finishing high school and in employees loving their jobs, not just putting in their hours and hoping for the weekend to come quickly.