Shop Class as Soul Craft, by Matthew B. Crawford

The loss of blue-collar jobs in the U.S. has been widely documented, as more jobs have moved overseas or been eliminated due to automation. For decades, we have been told that the job market requires knowledge workers rather than skilled mechanics, machinists, plumbers, etc. Reacting to this trend, school systems across the country began in the 1970s to abolish shop classes in favor of increased classroom time.

Crawford musters arguments against this trend from many sources. Not only do some children learn better through working with their hands, but many blue-collar jobs have not, in fact, gone away. When your refrigerator stops working, a repair person from China or India is not going to show up at your house. When your car needs a new muffler, you are not going to take it to Indonesia for service.

What sets this book apart is that Crawford goes beyond these arguments to talk about his own experience as an electrician and a motorcycle mechanic. He describes the intrinsic rewards that working in such trades brings. For one thing, there is the self-confidence provided by a growing mastery of a skill few people can claim. For another, you don't need your self-esteem boosted, as so often happens in the classroom, by being rewarded based on some vague criteria that cannot be quantified. No, you get all the reward you and your pride need when that engine starts or the lights come on. The proof that you have done a good job is obvious for anyone to see.

Crawford persuasively makes the case that troubleshooting an engine takes as much if not more knowledge than cranking out a report on a computer. Also, diagnosing a mysterious ping in an engine or using a piece of wood with its own unique grain and flaws requires you to go outside yourself and pay attention to what the engine needs, what the wood needs. The narcissism rampant in our consumer culture will only get in your way here. You cannot make rules for how your car's engine will behave and expect that it will follow them. No. The engine follows its own rules. I was amused to learn the word “resistentialism”, the belief that machines are out to get you, but once you understand how a machine works, you can trace cause and effect, which relieves you of the need for such magical thinking.

There was a time when most everyone could do simple repairs. Owner's manuals had exploded views showing how to take things apart and put them back together. Crawford makes the point that by hiding from us how our cars and computers work, manufacturers leave us less in control of our lives and more like the automaton factory workers and complacent consumers envisioned by Henry Ford and Frederick Taylor and their successors. Crawford goes on to point out that even artificial intelligence and knowledge management efforts—meant to capture the knowledge of corporate experts and make it available to all—have the unintended consequence of making us mere cogs in the machine, with no expertise of our own.

These arguments all resonate with me. I learned to fix my first car, a 1966 VW bug, partly because it was cheaper to fix it myself, partly because I like knowing how things work, but mostly because I didn't want to be out on some highway far from home with two babies in the back and not know how to get us out of a jam, such as the Sunday night we got off the ferry from Martha's Vineyard, got in the car, and the brakes went right to the floor. I had a can of brake fluid in the trunk, and I knew what to do with it.

Unfortunately the book is marred by paragraphs full of ponderous academic prose. Much of it is almost unreadable, which is too bad because Crawford's arguments are good ones and important not just for educators, but also for parents who want their children to have the opportunity to live their best lives.

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