The Chronicle Review

A Hands-On Philosopher Argues for a Fresh Vision of Manual Work


Matthew B. Crawford, who holds a Ph.D. in political philosophy, argues for a fresh view of manual labor in "Shop Class as Soulcraft," his first book.
June 07, 2009

The faculty job market was as bleak as the Chicago winter when Matthew B. Crawford sent out his first applications.

He had just earned a Ph.D. in political philosophy from the University of Chicago, and was serving as a postdoctoral fellow there. But it was while rebuilding his 1975 Honda CB360 motorcycle in a Hyde Park basement during that winter of 2000-1 that Crawford realized just how closely the hands and mind are intertwined.

Stumped by a starter motor that wouldn't work, he eventually met a mechanic named Fred Cousins, who ran a few tests before quickly diagnosing the problem. "Then Fred gave me a succinct dissertation on the peculiar metallurgy of these Honda starter-motor bushings of the mid-70s," Crawford writes in his newly published book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work (Penguin Press, 2009).

"Here was a scholar."

Crawford never did get a faculty job, but he is flourishing as a hands-on philosopher and motorcycle mechanic. Now 43, he owns a repair shop in Richmond, Va. Shop Class, his first book, has struck a nerve in a status-crazed society where the divide between blue- and white-collar jobs has been growing since the advent of the assembly line early in the 20th century.

In his book Crawford argues for a fresh view of skilled labor, especially that of the traditional trades. Go ahead, he's saying: Get your hands dirty. Own your work.

His book mixes descriptions of the pleasures and challenges of diagnosing faulty oil seals and rebuilding engines with philosophical views of work—he draws upon Aristotle, Martin Heidegger, and Hannah Arendt, among others—and economic analyses for the decline of skilled labor. He laments in particular the recent demise of high-school shop classes, which gave many young men their first manual skills. (Crawford points out that his arguments apply equally to women and says he hopes one day to work on a 1960 Volkswagen bug with his two young daughters.)

Skilled manual labor is far more cognitive than people realize, Crawford argues, and deserves more respect. That is especially true during tough economic times, when an independent tradesperson can make a decent and dignified living, and—this is important—can't be outsourced. (You can't get your car fixed in China.) "The question of what a good job looks like—of what sort of work is both secure and worthy of being honored—is more open now than it has been for a long time," he writes.

Crawford believes that Americans, in their frenzy to send every kid to college in pursuit of information-age job skills, have lost something valuable. "My sense is that some kids are getting hustled off to college when they'd rather be learning to build things or fix things, and that includes kids who are very smart," he says in an interview.

Crawford's phone has been ringing, and the blogosphere abuzz with lively discussions about working with one's hands, since an excerpt of Shop Class ran in The New York Times Magazine last month.

"It's a kind of reaction to a loss of contact with what it actually means to make things," says Richard Sennett, a sociologist whose own book, The Craftsman (Yale University Press, 2008), explores related issues. It's not a coincidence that a group of scholars is examining notions of what it means to practice a craft or trade at this point in time, says Sennett, who is on leave from New York University while teaching at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Those notions are also closely linked to issues of social class and mobility, he says. "Getting into a university has become a necessary ticket to getting into the middle class."

Bill Brown, a professor of English and visual art at Chicago, offers several explanations for the growing body of scholarship on the nature of work and objects. "When there's a blip in the economy, people start looking up from their desks," says Brown, whose own work on "thing theory" investigates the way inanimate objects form and transform human subjects. And as the world becomes more digitized—and its physical environment more degraded—people long for more contact with the material, he says.

But there's a big difference between being a mechanic because you want to be and because you have to be, cautions Brown, who never met Crawford at Chicago. "That can be the difference between work and labor."

An American Spectator blogger wrote: "It's an old story. Smart guys have been dumping their office jobs in favor of getting their hands dirty at least since Cincinnatus twice resigned the job of Roman dictator for that of dirt farmer. The trouble is, more people still want to be Roman dictator than dirt farmer."

Crawford is quick to point out that while there is dignity in all work that is genuinely useful, his book focuses on skilled labor, which offers a particular kind of agency and autonomy not available, say, to hotel maids and other unskilled workers.

Crawford's career path has been decidedly nonlinear. He spent several years living on a commune before graduating from high school in Berkeley, Calif. He learned to do electrical work and fix cars at an early age. At 17, feeling oppressed by "the liberal pieties of Berkeley," he had begun wearing combat boots and reading Soldier of Fortune magazine when a car mechanic named Chas introduced him to "the pleasures of metal," he writes.

Crawford went on to study physics at the University of California at Santa Barbara (his father was a physicist). He developed an interest in philosophy only in his senior year. His attempts to find an aerospace job after college were unsuccessful, but plenty of people were interested in his skills as an electrician. After reading the late Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, he was determined to study in Chicago. But when he met Bloom, "we didn't hit it off." Crawford ended up pursuing a master's degree in social sciences there.

A string of jobs followed, including one that involved writing abstracts for academic-journal articles. Finally he was a knowledge worker! Crawford sat reading in a cubicle all day, "but it turned out really to be stupid work masquerading as knowledge work."

He also taught Latin to high-school students, having studied Greek and Latin to prepare for graduate study. Most of his students were there only because they had heard that Latin could help boost their SAT scores—and that, Crawford says, was a shame. "I'm quite sure that if I'd been able to take some of these kids aside and say, let's build a deck together, or let's overhaul this engine, they would have perked right up. I think there's a question of, What sparks that love of learning? And it's different for different people.

"I think there's also a very common human thing, which is to take a tool in hand and see a direct effect in the world. I think that answers to something deep about our nature."

When he finished his doctorate at Chicago, Crawford went through the motions of applying for a faculty job, "but I didn't really think it through very carefully," he says. So an offer to be executive director of a Washington think tank seemed like a good move. But he left after just five months, when he realized the institute was fonder of some facts than others, as he puts it. Part of his job, he writes, "consisted of making arguments about global warming that just happened to coincide with the positions taken by the oil companies that funded the think tank." The think tank, not named in his book, was the George C. Marshall Institute. Its Web site says it supports "a critical examination of the scientific basis for global climate-change policy."

Crawford went on to start his own business, Shockoe Moto. A fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia allowed him to develop the idea for his book, which he first wrote about in an essay for The New Atlantis, a journal of technology and society. Among those who influenced his work was the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, along with the late Harry Braverman, Iris Murdoch, and Michael Polanyi.

Crawford says he has no interest in a traditional faculty job, but wants to make one thing clear. "I absolutely loved grad school," he says. "When I criticize this idea of 'knowledge work,' I'm criticizing something that masquerades as knowledge work."

He has no doubts that his academic background has enriched his work. But, he says, "You might be surprised how many intellectuals there are out there who haven't done a lot of higher education."

There isn't a hint of condescension in Crawford's book, says Sennett, the sociologist who studies work and craft. "That's part of the ethical ethos of craftsmanship."

White-collar attitudes toward those who work with their hands are another story. Cousins, the mechanic-mentor praised in Crawford's book, now an international service rep for a Chicago-area forklift-truck manufacturer, often felt patronized when people learned he was a motorcycle mechanic. At dinner parties, "people were just astounded that I could hold a conversation, that I was articulate, that I read anything," he says. "That always kind of irked me."

Jim Spellane, spokesman for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, calls Crawford's book an important contribution to the national discussion about work. The union is expecting a shortage of electrical workers in the coming years, partly because many people still believe that manual labor and quality of life are mutually exclusive. "We don't see it as an either-or situation," he says.

Reed Kroloff, director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art and Art Museum, near Detroit, believes the "seismic" economic shift in his region may actually lead to new opportunities for designers and skilled workers no longer needed in the car industry. For one thing, such skills tend to be highly transferable, he says. And because technology is giving rise to new crafts like laser cutting and computer illustration, "that will allow a different set of people to enter craft-related industries," he says.

That would very likely please Crawford. One of his goals in the book was to capture the experience of working with one's hands. There is a passage where he describes the process of learning to determine the wear of various parts while rebuilding an old engine. A senior mechanic had suggested that a particular problem might have been caused by mushrooming at the tips of the valve stems.

Previously, as we were cleaning parts, I had held one of the valves in my hand and examined it naively, but had not noticed the mushrooming. Now I saw it. Countless times since that day, a more experienced mechanic has pointed out to me something that was right in front of my face, but which I lacked the knowledge to see. It is an uncanny experience; the raw sensual data reaching my eye before and after are the same, but without the pertinent framework of meaning, the features in question are invisible. Once they have been pointed out, it seems impossible that I should not have seen them before.


You could be forgiven for thinking that the experience sounded almost Zen-like.