After earning his Ph.D. in political philosophy and taking a position at a Washington D.C. think tank, Matthew Crawford was on the trajectory toward a successful career as a knowledge worker. Then one day he decided to walk away from it all and open up a small motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, Va. This unconventional career move provides the basis for Crawford's New York Times bestselling "Shop Class as Soulcraft: an Inquiry into the Value of Work," in which he combines memoir with a philosophical examination of the division between knowledge labor and manual labor in our society.
Crawford argues that despite our society's tendency to degrade work that is physical in nature, his own day-to-day experience working as a mechanic and electrician often proved to be more challenging, more engaging and ultimately more rewarding than his previous work as a white-collar professional.
In addition to running the repair shop, Crawford is a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He recently sat down with Real Change to discuss his book before his May 12 address at Town Hall Seattle.
Your book provides a critique of the dichotomy between knowledge work and manual work in our society. What are some of the assumptions upon which this dichotomy is based?
I think the most obvious and also the most pernicious, is the assumption that if the work is dirty, it must also be stupid. In fact, the book grows out of an attempt to explain to myself, why, in doing electrical work and mechanical work, I felt more challenged than in other jobs that were officially recognized as knowledge work. But, you asked what further assumptions that division might be based on, and I think that, in our society, we give the highest prestige to a certain kind of knowledge: "knowing that" as opposed to "knowing how." Knowing that something is the case; that's a kind of universal knowledge, it's something that can be stated from anywhere, and put in a book, and transmitted without loss. Whereas "know how" is always tied to the experience of an individual, and that ties into the economic point -- that the kinds of jobs that are based on personal know how are often the ones that can't be outsourced.
How is our education system complicit in privileging knowledge work over manual work?
I think it is. I think that we've developed a kind of educational monoculture where there's one ideal which is to go to college and get on a certain track and end up doing something white collar, and there isn't enough accommodation for the fact that for some people, what sparks that love of learning is taking things apart and figuring out how they work. I actually taught high school briefly and it was more or less a complete disaster ...
I was teaching Latin, which would have been great if the kids there were actually interested in Latin, but instead, they'd been told they had to take Latin to get their SAT scores up, and I kept thinking that if I could have taken a few of those kids aside, and said, "Hey let's build a deck together," that they would have perked right up. But as it was, I kept wishing that I had, like, a Ritalin fogger just to get them settled down because they were not down with the Latin.
Can you describe your own experience as a knowledge worker, and how you found it to differ from your experience of working in the manual trades?
Yeah. I had this job that sounded great on paper. It was writing summaries of articles in scientific journals, so I thought that I would learn a lot because I'd be surveying all this stuff. The problem was that there was a quota of writing 28 of these per day, which is flatly impossible. So the job was structured on the assumption that it could be done in this rote, mindless way. You know -- just follow these instructions and you could magically produce a summary of something without even really comprehending it. So in other words, it was complete bullshit, and what we produced was really kind of garbage. In my own case, I know it was, and the irony is that I got that job because I had a Masters Degree. So that credential kind of obscures a more real stupidification of the work itself, and it paid a wage to match. It paid $23,000 per year, and a further irony is that I'd previously made about twice that much working as an unlicensed electrician, and using my own judgment every day.
What does it mean to be "master of your own stuff," and how has our economic system of corporate power and consumerism created a disconnect between individuals and the tangible world that we live in?
There's a chapter there where I'm trying to talk about the idea of self reliance. I think it's become harder to be self reliant because it's harder to just get a handle on your own stuff. We've got this design philosophy that's emerged where the point seems to be to hide the works. This business of, you know, if you lift the hood on some cars, there's essentially another hood underneath it. And, the absence of a dip stick, where instead, you're sent an email if your engine runs low on oil. And these things often proceed under a kind of promise that I think really runs through consumerism, that is a promise of freedom and autonomy, but it often feels like the actual effect of this endless complication and further gadgets, instead, is a kind of infantilization where we become big babies. There are fewer occasions to be directly responsible for your own physical environment and I think that, with that, comes less expectation of responsibility. So, it's a kind of vicious circle of becoming ever more passive and dependent.
In what ways can the skills acquired through manual labor provide a sense of personal agency that is often lacking in our globalized economy?
I think that [the] experience of individual agency can be quite elusive in modern life. By agency I simply mean that experience of seeing a direct effect of your own actions in the world. You know, if you're working in an office, often the chain of cause and effect can be a bit opaque and confusing, and responsibility tends to get spread around, so you're never quite sure where you stand, and the result is that you have to spend a fair amount of time managing what others think of you. It can be a kind of anxious and paranoid environment. Now, by contrast, say you're a carpenter and you have a problem with your boss, you can say to him, "It's plumb, it's level and it's square. Go check it yourself." But when you don't have an appeal to concrete standards like that, I think that it opens up the door to all kinds of weird and smarmy forms of manipulation in a work place, where the manager becomes, not so much a boss as much as a therapist or a life coach. You know, like the TV show The Office -- the smarminess of Michael, I think, nicely captures that problem. And I think in the book, I really highlight this idea of individual agency because it's one of the central features of modern life, that we often feel like we're moving in these channels that have been projected from someplace else, and some of us worry that we're actually becoming stupider, and we wonder if getting an adequate grasp on the world intellectually may actually depend on getting a handle on it in some literal and active sense.
So, regarding that, can you talk a little about your own experience as a mechanic? You wrote that you, in some ways, found that work to be even more cognitively challenging than some of the other positions that you have held.
Yeah. In mechanical work, the most challenging part is the diagnostic part. Trying to figure out what the hell's wrong with the thing. Especially when you're working on old machines that are kind of decrepit. It's kind of like gerontology maybe -- old bodies that are falling apart. For example, there often comes a point where the service manual becomes inadequate because it presents this idealized picture of the diagnostic process or the repair process. But if you're dealing with frozen, rounded out, rusted fasteners that don't want to come out and need to be drilled out, you have to take that into account when trying to decide what to do, so there comes a point where you're relying on the kind of judgment that only comes from experience. It's more hunches than rules.
In addition to the intrinsic value of manual work that you describe throughout your book, you also claim that jobs in the trades are more protected than many others from the impacts of outsourcing and automation. Is there a way to elevate the dominant conception of manual labor while ensuring equal access to these jobs?
So your first point is about the kind of work that has to be done on site or in person. Thirty years ago, we learned that anything that can be put on a container ship is going to be made wherever labor is cheapest, which turned out to not be here but in China. And in the last 10 years, a similar logic has emerged for the products of intellectual labor that can be delivered over a wire. But you can't fix a leaking toilet over the internet. So, you're asking about equal access to these jobs, and the current situation seems to be, if you talk to plumbers and electricians who have small contracting companies of their own, that they are desperate to find people. You know, they're all like 60 years old, and they're wondering where the next generation is going to come from.
Now obviously, if all of a sudden everybody went into the trades, that would change and also wages would fall because of simple supply and demand. But the book really isn't intended as a kind of blanket prescription that everyone should go into the trades. It's more trying to say that that should be an honorable alternative for those of us who just feel completely ill-suited to working in an office. And I think part of the way to restore the honor of the trades is to point out how intellectually demanding they can be.
You draw from your personal experience to demonstrate the reductive effect that our corporate and consumer culture has on the potential for human flourishing. What steps do you believe can be taken as individuals to reverse this trend, and to work toward a society that provides the opportunity to flourish for all of its citizens?
It's really thinkers in the Marxist tradition who have pointed out that one of the central imperatives of industrial capitalism is to separate thinking from doing, to take all of the craft knowledge that's scattered in the heads of craftspeople and gather it into a central location, or a process, so that you can then replace those skilled workers with unskilled workers for lower pay. And so, that's what happened to manufacturing one hundred years ago, with the advent of the assembly line, and that's what continues to happen with all kinds of work today. The work of white collar professionals is the new frontier of that kind of dumbing down, that's exactly what I experienced in the abstracting job. So the question becomes: what kind of work resists that kind of dumbing down, where you can exercise your capacities more fully? And I think the skilled trades answer pretty well to that desire. The physical circumstances in which you do those jobs really varies too much for the work to get reduced to simply following a set of procedures. It always requires improvisation and adaptability, and for that reason, you feel like a human being rather than a cog in a machine. So, in the book, I'm trying to kind of point out cracks in the system, as it were, where one can make a life for one's self with work that has a certain dignity to it, and as I think one of your earlier questions suggested, if everyone took my advice, that would be a problem, because these cracks are small, and if they became much bigger, then wages would fall for that kind of work. So, the book is really offered in the spirit of advice whispered into the ear of a young person more than as a kind of blanket prescription for society.