Reviewed by Jonas Lamb for the Juneau Empire
Do you feel insulted by automatic faucets, throw-away electronics and high-end automobiles that have USB ports but no dipsticks? In Crawford’s unique work, careful attention is given to the anatomy of frustration many of us share as we encounter technological advancements that claim to save our time by removing independent thought and the physical manipulation of things from our daily experience. As both the owner of a motorcycle repair shop and a doctor of philosophy, Crawford brings elements of both worlds to his exploration of the philosophy, economy and ethics of work. From the value-added products of a craftsman to the intellectual, time-saving services provided by the knowledge worker, Shop Class is an articulate, passionate argument in support of a return to the skilled trades in opposition to the over-emphasis of advanced degrees and certifications. Though it is, at times difficult to push through the dense academic prose, this should be required reading for parents and students alike in preparing for the transition to college or the working world. Anyone currently considering a career change, or navigating unemployment with cynical frustration should proceed with caution as Shop Class journeys into the psychology and cultural notions of identity, self-worth and how these notions are tied to the work we perform.
The book’s central argument focuses on the increasing automation of white-collar work and the intangibility of the products and services which workers in today’s cubicle culture are expected to produce and market. Crawford cites, “the popularity of Dilbert, The Office, and any number of other pop-culture windows on cubicle life [which] attest to the dark absurdism with which many Americans have come to view their white-collar work. Absurdity is good for comedy, but bad as a way of life”. White-collar work in today’s global market is easily outsourced leading to a labor market saturated with college graduates and severely lacking in skilled carpenters, electricians and mechanics, these “useful arts” or skilled trades perform the essential work which can’t be outsourced to China. In the not so distant past, a career in the trades was a respectable choice, but then something happened. Shop classes began to disappear from school curriculum in favor of computer and technology courses and college became the only way. Cultural attitudes toward the nature of work being what they are, “Oregon’s Department of Education says there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that the fastest-growing segments of the student body at community colleges are people who already have a four-year degree and return to get a marketable trade skill”. As far back as 1942, Joseph Schumpeter warned of the dangers of the expansion of higher education beyond labor market demand creating situations where knowledge workers are forced into “substandard work or at wages below those of the better-paid manual workers”. Though leaning heavily at times in favor of the trades, Crawford returns to middle ground and encourages college education but with summer time apprenticeships in a trade.
Those hoping for a travel narrative reminiscent of Pirsig’s, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance will take pleasure in the chapters focusing on Crawford’s own unique journey through the working world, from full-time electrician’s apprentice at age 15, to PhD in Philosophy desperate for work. However, much of the book lacks narrative momentum and verges on overly philosophical, semantic diatribes on corporate management, labor economics and how ethics and morality factor into work. Crawford’s voice as a storyteller truly emerges when exploring the visceral worlds of grease and pneumatic tools that grind with precision at the heart of motorcycle maintenance. One moment of clarity and brotherhood occurs when on a disorienting journey to India, Crawford sees a group of electricians in India preparing to pull wires, and sensing a common bond, muses, “I wanted to leap out of the rickshaw and say, ‘I do this too!’”. The ensuing discussion is particularly interesting in which international labor unions (seldom actually international in nature) are portrayed as more effective at recognizing global human excellence in unlikely places than international institutions like the UN which declare universal human rights but in abstract terms. However it is in these passages where Crawford’s odd brand of self-reliant conservatism and Marxism resonates as true and insightful:
“It is precisely our attraction to excellence- our being on the lookout for the choicer manifestations-that may lead us to attend to human practices searchingly, without prejudice, and find superiority in unfamiliar places. For example, in the intellectual accomplishments of people who do work that is dirty, such as the mechanic. With such discoveries we extend our moral imagination to people who are conventionally beneath serious regard, and find them admirable. Not because we heed a moral injunction such as the universalist egalitarian urges upon us, but because we actually see something admirable, and are impressed by it.”
As a whole, Crawford’s at times unbalanced indictment of the modern workplace, is a thought provoking journey through the philosophy and ethics of craftsmanship and an insightful memoir of work in a changing world. Pick this up for the philosophical high school kid in your life or as you stand on the brink of a mid-life career change in a marginal economy or for yourself if you have the stamina to skim though some dense, overly-academic prose for the moments when craftsmanship of the author’s skilled hands weave a story that hits on the growing disparities in our individual experiences as we journey through our lives at work.
Jonas Lamb is a librarian and poet currently navigating unemployment, considering a trade apprenticeship and pursuing gratifying “knowledge work” in Portland, Oregon.