Shop Class as Soulcraft (Brief Book Review)

by Harley Voogd

Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of WorkShop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Don’t mistake this book as a simple read for the next holiday. It’s quite deep. It’s really a philosophical treatise on the subject of work in relation to practical knowledge and craftsmanship.

Matthew Crawford is an electrician turned political philosopher turned motorcycle mechanic. He has a Ph.D. in political philosophy, so he’s not just some “grunt.” Not that he would need a Ph.D. to write a thoughtful book on this subject — the experience of working in both the office and on the construction site is really what gave him the fuel to write this book.

In it, he compares working with one’s hands verses “knowledge-based” work. Which is better for the soul? Obviously he sides with the hands on work, and he writes a fine critique of the corporate culture which has developed in the west over the last few decades.

My favourite chapter is called The Contradiction of the Cubicle. Crawford compares the hierarchical structure of the office to that of the construction site. Here’s an excerpt:

In the office…

Through the exercise of charismatic authority, the manager unsettles others, shaking them out of their cramped views and stale habits, thereby unleashing the creativity of all workers. This is a charismatic leader of a new kind, a sort of radical democrat. He does not seek followers; he seeks to make every man a leader of himself…

Workers must identify with the corporate culture, and exhibit a high level of “buy-in” to “the mission.” The division between private life and work life is eroded, and accordingly the whole person is at issue in job performance evaluations.
(pg. 149-150)

On the construction site…

In the trades, a master offers his apprentice good reasons for acting in one way rather than another, the better to realize ends, the goodness of which is readily apparent. The master has no need for a psychology of persuasion that will make the apprentice compliant to whatever purposes the master might dream up; those purposes are given and determinate. He does the same work as the apprentice, only better… For the apprentice there is a progressive revelation of the reasonableness of the master’s actions. He may not know why things have to be done a certain way at first, and have to take it on faith, but the rationale becomes apparent as he gains experience. [Office style] teamwork doesn’t have this progressive character. It depends on group dynamics, which are inherently unstable and subject to manipulation… 

[With the master/apprentice relationship] the judgements of the master [toward the apprentice] feel ennobling rather than debasing. There is a sort of friendship or solidarity that becomes possible at work when people are open about differences in rank, and there are clear standards.
(pg. 159-160)

The book is 210 pages long.

Give it a read!

Further reading…

The Case of Working With Your Hands by Matthew B. Crawford

Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew B. Crawford

In Praise of the Repairman by Peter Leithart

View all my reviews

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