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Shop Class as Soulcraft

Or, why I want my daughters to learn to use tools.

Right now I’m a little perplexed. See, I read this book, Shop Craft as Soulcraft, at the recommendation of friends who know I’m on this success thing. Well, he’s an unusual thinker, this guy, the author. He earned his Ph.D in Philosophy at the University of Chicago, but after a stint working in a think tank (work he found too abstract - ironic for a philosopher, don’t you think?) he went back to what he’d done to support himself through college – being an electrician and then a mechanic. Specializing in motorcycles.

Dan Stevens, a.k.a. Matthew Crawley

Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, is by Matthew B. Crawford, whose name is somewhat like Matthew Crawley, as fans of Downton Abbey will recognize. Matthew Crawley, would, I think, be right on board with Crawford’s argument, as he likes to see himself as a working fellow and not beholden to the wealth he may (or may not) inherit from Lord and Lady Grantham. But I digress, Readers.

Now, I’ve bought Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and not read it. Twice. But this book I read. Why? Because my friends recommended it, natch.

What is it about motorcycle mechanics? Who knew they were so cerebral?

Cerebral mechanics prove one of the author’s points (stay with me, Readers, especially those who tune in for the story portion of my posts)- that people underestimate the intellectual challenge of manual labor, when it’s skilled manual labor. Another of his points is that we’ve done a disservice to ourselves by creating a dichotomy in schools between technical/vocation and academic training. This argument is part of the author’s largest point, which is that we are all f**cked - pardon the French - because we’ve identified being successful in life with academic credentials and high paying white collar work, at the same time that we’ve turned skilled manual work into unskilled manual work and thereby deprived people of the satisfaction of jobs where they have the opportunity to fix something/do something/put effort into something and see the result. So many people are miserable at their white collar jobs because they are essentially working towards abstract goals like customer satisfaction, without any concrete means to produce this satisfaction. They never feel successful, even if they achieve many credentials and earn many dollars. Meanwhile, schools have phased out shop class and other practical elements of high school education in past decades like home economics, because manual labor is now so devalued that white collar folks are not supposed to want or to need to have anything to do with it.

It’s really kind of rough to read a book pointing out that the entire aim of your education, and of your life, is probably going to lead you to existential despair, and that you’re directing your children to the same pit of misery by sending them to school instead of to the local garage for a few pointers. I mean, who wants to hear that? Not I. Thus, my perplexity.

So I have to point out the giant flaw in this book. Okay, maybe it’s a rather small flaw, actually, but it’s the flaw the broke the camel’s argument, at least for this reader.

Crawford says that automatic faucets in public restrooms are the Devil’s work. That is right. Apparently, we’d be better people if we had to work at the little stuff, like turning on and off the faucets, which gives us more autonomy because we have control over our environment.

Okay, Readers, he didn’t actually say anything about the Devil. Here’s what he says of these automatic items:

Why should there not be a handle?....It's true, some people fail to turn off a manual faucet. With its blanket presumption of irresponsibility, the infrared faucet doesn’t merely respond to this fact, it installs it, giving it the status of normalcy. There is a kind of infantilization at work, and it offends the spirited personality. (p. 56)

Offends the spirited personality? No, it does not.

Hello. I consider myself a spirited personality. I, for one, love an automatic faucet. Heck, I’m fond of automatic soap dispensers, too. Automatic flush toilets, when they don’t flush at inopportune moments or refuse to flush at crucial ones are high on my list of likes, too. And bathroom doors that push open, so you don’t have to touch a door handle. You know, if you want to install automatic doors on public restrooms, I am not going to feel my autonomy is threatened in any way. Go ahead.

Clearly, this author has never spent much time in public restrooms. More specifically, he hasn’t spent time in public restrooms with small children. Why should there not be a handle? Let me tell you why: germs.

Now, I may wax more vocal on the subject of germs and small children than others, but I know I am not alone in my mysophobic tendencies. When I have doubted this and have wondered if I need to embark on a series of cognitive behavior therapy sessions, all I have to do is visit a public restroom. I need spend only a moment or two in said facility, before a mother with a small child enters a stall, and I hear, “Don’t touch anything.” The tone and emphases vary. “Do. Not. Touch. Anything.” “Don’t touch ANYthing.” “Do NOT touch anything.” And the volume varies, too. The words, never. They always bring a smile to my face, as well as a warm sunburst of compassion for the person who is busily papering over the entire stall before allowing her small fry to do his or her business. I vividly recall accompanying my cousin while she took her first child, then potty training, to a public restroom. This was long before I had children. She practically mummified the toilet before putting her child on it and saying (loudly and with equal emphasis on each word, the mommy mantra, “Do Not Touch Anything.)

So I am then reminded that I am not in fact crazy. (Or, I suppose, that crazy runs in my family, but at least I am not alone.) And then I get the bleep out of those tiled germ holes, using only my forearms to push open the door, or grasping the door handle with my shirtsleeve pulled over my hand, and trying not to inhale too deeply.

I think I’ve proved my point.

Or maybe Matthew Crawford’s.

This is a repeat from my previous post, but it was perfect for this one.

Okay, listen, I may be guilty of reductio ad absurdum here. That’s my right. It’s my blog. Frankly, it's one of my specialties.

Clearly, the book dipped into the wellspring of my own sense of inadequacy in the practical realm of motorcycle repairs (symbolically, of course.) After all, as I said, my kids aren’t getting shop class in their school, and we are too often forced to use the plumber who charges $100 for pulling into the driveway.

So in my own, unskilled way, I will admit that dealing with faucets and knobs while evading germs has given me a certain satisfaction derived from my ingenuity and dexterity with paper towels and shirt sleeves, and if I never had to do that again, I’d be robbed of that sort of direct feedback on my autonomous efforts to avoid gross stuff in bathrooms. Beyond that, I see the satisfaction the 5th grader gets from using the can opener and the sharp knives to make tuna salad for us. Even as I cringe upstairs in my bedroom while she chops a carrot, the sharp knock of the blade on the cutting board ringing through the house, I do see Crawford’s point.

Autonomy, the ability to use one’s intellect, and the chance to produce a recognizable result, when combined, lead to a feeling of deep success and satisfaction.

This is all well and good, but what Crawford suggests about the way globalization will ultimately affect white collar work sends shivers of fear up this mom’s spine. He talks about how with technology, all work that can be conducted without a face-to-face encounter, will migrate offshore, leaving only – you guessed it, skilled, manual type labor, or other work that requires physical presence in the workplace. S’long, radiologists, howdy surgeons. S’long architects, howdy builders. The sort has begun.

So I guess we need to reinstitute shop class, and we need to pay a little better attention to our mechanic-philosophers. Which is why we’ll be sending the 5th grader to a summer camp that encourages the use of tools. Actually, no, it’s luck that we’ve decided to send the 5th grader to a camp that teaches some of that stuff, and I’ll just have to manage my cringing from afar. I’ll buy a lot of what he’s saying.

But he's never going to win me over with that automatic faucet argument.

©Hope A. Perlman 2013

This post appeared in slightly different form at

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