Tuesday, September 22, 2009

book review

I was asked by a magazine to write a 500 word review of Matthew Crawford's Shop Class as Soulcraft, An Inquiry Into the Value of Work. Unedited, this is what I've written:

One morning I followed a link sent to me by a friend and found that I had been quoted in the New York Times. That’s not a thing that happens often to wood shop teachers. I found out later that the opening lines, chapter one in Matthew Crawford’s best selling book from which the article was drawn, Shop Class as Soulcraft, An Inquiry Into the Value of Work were my own words as follows:
In Schools we create artificial learning environments for our children that they know to be contrived and undeserving of their full attention and engagement… Without the opportunity to learn through the hands, the world remains abstract, and distant, and the passions for learning will not be engaged. --Wisdom of the Hands blog post of October 16, 2006
Such a statement could have been made by any of the remaining wood shop teachers in America. We all know in our hearts, through our own soulcraft, that our students learn best when their hands are engaged in real problem solving.

Certainly, Matthew Crawford’s book Shop Class as Soulcraft isn’t the first book to look at the values of work and the absurdities of the blue collar/white collar divide, though all of us hand-guys and shop teachers revel in its success. As a wood shop teacher and hands-on learning enthusiast, I welcome all the help I can get in explaining the value of my program. Crawford’s well-written exploration is a much-valued addition to others on the subject. Mike Rose’s Mind at Work and Richard Sennett’s the Craftsman are recent books that come to mind that inquired intelligently about the values of work.

Soulcraft’s great appeal is that it is an engaging story well told from personal experience by someone measured successful on both sides of the white collar/blue collar divide who chose the blue and provides eloquent defense of his decision. It illuminates our misperceptions of the values of each and presents a strong case for rethinking the educational goals we might reasonably demand of our children. I was one of those whose parental aspirations were that I might become a lawyer before my own hands and heart got in the way of their ambitions for me. So I am particularly pleased to see anyone make the case that a craftsman or tradesman can find not only pleasure in work, but success and meaning as well. Crawford is a Ph.D. philosopher, turned motorcycle mechanic, and his tale I hope informs us all that our ideal of university education for all may for some be a waste of time and for some a great disservice when many might find greater pleasure and deeper meaning in direct hands-on problem solving that a life in the trades might provide. As suggested by another book, The Millionaire Next Door, by Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko, a life in the trades might even end up making more money.

Perhaps most pleasing is that Crawford demonstrates his chops as both a mechanic and philosopher, through thoughtful and coherent discourse… Motorcycle mechanics and philosophy? That for some of us is not necessarily a surprise. Years ago we had Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and readers will sense a connection. But long before that Jean Jacques Rousseau had said in Emelius and Sophia, 1763: “If instead of making a child stick to his books I employ him in a workshop, his hands labor to the profit of his mind, he becomes a philosopher but fancies he is only a workman.” Shop Class as Soulcraft. Read it.


  1. Ahmed3:16 PM

    I would just like to point out that it was cited as 2006 (you have it 08) in Crawford's 2009 version of Shop Class as Soulcraft. Ditto on http://wisdomofhands.blogspot.com/2011/04/forgive-me-as-i-repeat-myself.html . My Professor is making us read and scrutinize Crawfords book, and i noticed the mistake. Good blog if i may add :]

  2. Ahmed, thanks for the correction. I've fixed it.

    What a nice book to read and scrutinize!