During the course of this entire week, FPR will devote its main pages to a symposium on the recent book Shop Class as Soul Craft by Matthew Crawford. The book has been widely discussed in the pages and on the airwaves of a number of major media outlets, and clearly has struck a chord with contemporary readers concerned about the trajectory of the modern American workplace away from knowing how to do things instead toward a dominant role of the kind of work done by what Robert Reich called “symbolic analysts.” Coming at a time of economic crisis, an increased interest (and necessity) of repairing our own stuff and growing our own food, and growing concern about the viability of an economic system based upon outsourcing and offshoring, the book is a timely reminder that certain kinds of work are always necessary, and further, that many of the manual trades possess an inherently integrative and purposive function that are often lacking in the sorts of deracinated jobs in many contemporary blue- and white-collar workplaces. It is a repudiation of much of the ideology that underlies modern globalization and elite and academic assumptions about the superiority of office work over hand craft.

In the book, Matt Crawford argues on behalf of the virtues of crafts – those forms of work that require skill of hands, a storehouse of knowledge and experience, patience, improvisational ability, and creativity. His book is a seering indictment of the alienation and deforming nature of much of what constitutes modern work, whether those “manual” jobs that tend to be modeled on mass-production models of assembly line, or “brain” work that more often than not results in workplaces that resemble “The Office” or “Dilbert.” He argues fiercely against the notion that there ought to be a conceptual separation between “manual” and “mental” work, noting that the crafts require a high degree of thought and creativity. The book argues for a reconsideration of many modern assumptions about the superiority of certain kinds of educational tracks and life paths, and ably points out that many modern office jobs are just as intellectually deadening as the assembly line jobs that once required 93 job offers for every one position being filled. There was a time when men and women had a sense of the dignity of work that most people refused to remain in a job that degraded and alienated its holder. Now, Crawford suggests, many regard such work (especially its white collar iterations) as a badge of success.

Matt brings a great deal of personal authority and experience to the basic argument of his book: he grew up working as an electrician and currently owns a motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, VA, but also holds a Ph.D. in political philosophy from the University of Chicago and a fellowship in the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. In this book he brings together the two worlds that are often sundered by a modern form of Gnosticism, the privileging of the work of mind over the work of hands. The book is highly readable – an appealing combination of serious philosophical reflection and often uproarious personal anecdotes. For those readers who have not yet read the book, but are interested in learning more of its basic argument in the course of reading the various assessments of the book on offer here this week, we recommend (in addition to reading the book itself) this early version of the book’s argument an essay that first appeared in the fine journal The New Atlantis – and this excerpt from the book that appeared in the pages of the New York Times Magazine.

I hope readers will enjoy a week of sustained attention to a single book – and we’ll return to “our regular programming” next week.

Patrick Deneen, Symposium Editor

Monday’s Posts: Rod Dreher and Samuel Goldman

Tuesday’s Posts: Susan McWilliams and Jason Peters

Wednesday’s Posts: Patrick Deneen and Matt Feeney

Thursday’s Posts: Mark Mitchell and Conor Williams

Friday’s Posts: Mark Shiffman and Russell Arben Fox

13 COMMENTS

  1. The good news is that our industrial model is headed toward a reuniting of head and hands. The Sloan model of mass production industry will probably be replaced by the kind of networked production that prevails in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region: integrating power machinery into craft production, using general-purpose machines to switch frequently between small batches of different products. And as Johann Soderberg pointed out, the computer is the ultimate artisan’s tool–a general-purpose machine controlled by a flexible, skilled operator and adaptable to a wide variety of purposes. And that artisan’s tool is well on the way toward destroying the corporate dinosaurs of the old proprietary content industries–music, software, publishing, etc.

  2. (cross comment in Rod Dreher’s blog regarding his post about a Papal thanks to carpenters)

    I wonder what P. Deneen, who is both a Catholic and praises Ancient Greece, thinks about this statement by the Pope:

    “In the Greek world, intellectual work alone was considered worthy of a free man. Manual work was left to slaves.

    The biblical religion is quite different…”

    I believe that what his majesty the Pope calls “Greek world” was coined by several city-states and had different views regarding “labour and trade”:

    – in Sparta, all work was despised and no citizen was allowed to engage in it; this was the result of they military situation and control of population that outnumbered the citizens
    – in Athens, they were strongly attached to the idea of democracy and freedom, so that farmers and mechanics were permitted citizen status and voting rights

    Pericles declared during his famous “Funeral Oration”, that “our ordinary citizens, thought occupied with the pursuits of industry are still fair judges of public matters” (Thucydides 1934, 2:38)

    Source is “The Concept of Work” by Herbert Applebaum, available in Google Books.

  3. I always like watching American Chopper. Imagine how pathetic I am, it’s enjoyable to watch other people make neat stuff while I waste away as a Weberian technocrat.

  4. Goodness gracious, as my grandmother used to say. That this discussion could come up in my lifetime shows how quickly we have slid downhill. Shop classes were a joke in my school years; we already knew how to do all that stuff. I never mastered carburetors, but all my friends could take a tractor, truck or car apart and put it back together by the age of fourteen. We all learned crafts. I remember Bill Buckley writing somewhere that his father insisted that each of his ten children learn to type and to play a musical instrument. Among the upper classes, the economy was already a mystical thing.
    The order of Creation, at its most basic, requires us to grow things, make things, and fix things. Jesus spent many years making things before his ministry. There is no better model. For about 48 years now (1961 and the cult of the Kennedys is a pretty good dot spot) we in this declining country have been growing, making, and fixing less and less. And as we have put the teaching of such matters into public educational institutions, at whatever level, it gets only worse.
    All of my students can text message; not one can grow a tomato.

  5. The ancient Jews taught that one should be able to use his hands and his mind. Our society has drifted away from respecting those who can fix things and glorifying those who work in a virtual world of finance. I found woodshop in grade school – yes, grade school – to be the greatest of classes.

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