Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford
The Book in 3 Sentences
Self-realization and freedom always entail buying something new, never conserving something old. Fixing things is very different from building things from scratch; the mechanical arts have a special significance for our time because they cultivate the virtue of attentiveness over creativity. The experience of failure tempers the concept of mastery.
Notes on the Book
Some people off may be turned off that the book reads like an expanded academic paper. This is especially true in the beginning and conclusion of the book. Although the author is a practicing motorcycle mechanic, Crawford was formerly a university-level philosophy professor and holds a Ph.D. That being said, the middle portion of the book reveals Crawford’s passion and excited attitude towards repairing and maintaining motorcycles.
The book itself is a standard size and the paragraph width is comfortable. Personally I found the leading to be too large (resembling a double-spaced school paper), but this makes for a quick and easy read.
In Praise of Manual Work
The book argues the idea that meaningful work is genuinely useful work. For Crawford, this takes the form of a craftsman; or to be more specific, tradesman. (p6)
On a more practical (and less controversial) note, he goes deep into the ethics of maintenance and repair. He argues that we should have more focused engagement with the material world. Even the non-professional should strive for some self-reliance. (pp6–7)
The relentless complication of cars, motorcycles, and nearly all technology for that matter has altered the jobs of those who service them. “What sort of personality does one need to have, as a twenty-first-century mechanic, to tolerate the layers of electronic bullshit that get piled on top of machines?” (p7)
“Those who work in an office often feel that, despite the proliferation of contrived metrics they must meet, their job lacks objective standards of the sort provided by, for example, a carpenter’s level, and that as a result there is something arbitrary in the dispensing of credit and blame.” (p8)
Agency versus Autonomy
Although developments like prefabricated roof trusses and pre-hung doors have streamlined the job of a carpenter, their job still requires circumspection and adaptability. Instead of a “cog in a machine”, one feels human. (pp52–53)
Our relationship with mechanics continues to shift and become more abstracted. For example, the latest Mercedes models do not have a dipstick to check the oil. Instead, the owner sees ‘Service Required’ displayed on the dash for the simple task. They are independent of mundane tasks, yet more dependent on the bureaucracy of the dealership. (p61)
Attentiveness and Humility through Fixing Things
Somehow, self-realization and freedom always entail buying something new, never conserving something old. “We should illuminate the appeal of manual work in a way that is neither romantic nor nostalgic, but rather simply gives credit to the practice of building things, fixing things, and routinely tending to things, as an element of human flourishing”. (pp63–64)
Fixing things is very different from building things from scratch. The mechanic and the doctor deal with failure every day, even if they are the expert, whereas the builder (or architect) does not. This is because the things they fix are not of their own making, and are therefore never known in a comprehensive or absolute way. This experience of failure tempers the conceit of mastery; the doctor and the mechanic have a vivid awareness of the difference between self and non-self. (pp82–83)
Diagnosing and fixing things is variable, complex, and not of one's own making. It is therefore unknowable and requires a particular disposition toward the thing you are trying to fix. “This disposition is at once cognitive and moral.” Getting things right demands that you be attentive in the way of a conversation rather than assertive in the way of a demonstration. The mechanical arts have a special significance for our time because they cultivate the (less glamorous) virtue of attentiveness over creativity. (p83)
“Any discipline that deals with an authoritative, independent reality requires honesty and humility.” (p100)
Service Tickets and Billing
“I keep a logbook in the shop, a sort of motorcycle diary that serves a number of purposes. It is a record of bikes taken in, work done, and lessons learned. Sometimes I draw pictures to help myself reason through some mechanical situation. I measure various tolerances, when rebuilding a clutch, for example, and list them next to the wear limits specified in the service manual, if I have one for the bike. I also record the amount of time I spend on each task and the money I’ve spent on parts. The book serves as a rough draft, then, for the service ticket, I eventually write for the customer. It is rough because I have to make a judgment about how much detail the owner is interested in, and also about how truthful it is prudent to be. ...More often than not, I will bill for much less time.” (p112–113)
I get absorbed in what I’m working on… my market niche lies in the fact that I’m willing to work on just about any older bike. I lie and tell people a job took ten hours when it took twenty. To compensate, I bill at a higher rate. While I feel like an amateur, through this technique I appear to know what I’m doing and bill accordingly. (p113)
Undertaking a ‘big job’ knowing your investigation was thorough and complete will give you great satisfaction. Sometimes you can’t charge for all the hours; the belated recognition that the quality of being wide awake, being of a clear-sighted person who looks around and sees the whole situation, isn't something you can take for granted. (125)