Friday, October 09, 2009

Northern Woodlands

My review of Shop Class as Soulcraft for Northern Woodlands magazine has been edited and approved for the next issue. Northern Woodlands is an informative regional publication that has great articles about nature and the outdoors with a particular emphasis on forest and stream ecology and sustainable forestry practices. It also offers an interesting email newsletter that might be of special interest and entertainment to my regular readers.
Shop Class as Soulcraft, An Inquiry Into the Value of Work
By Matthew Crawford
Penguin Press, 2009

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 woodshop teachers.

The article cited my blog in its discussion of Matthew Crawford’s best selling book, Shop Class as Soulcraft, An Inquiry Into the Value of Work. Crawford’s book opens by quoting me:

“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.”

Such a statement could have been made by any of the remaining woodshop 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, Crawford’s book isn’t the first 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 woodshop 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 inquire 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, someone 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 in his work not only pleasure but also success and meaning.

Crawford is a Ph.D. philosopher turned motorcycle mechanic. His tale shows that our ideal of university education for all may for some be a waste of time and for some a great disservice. Many reluctant students might find greater pleasure and deeper meaning in the direct hands-on problem solving that a life in the trades can 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 is not necessarily a surprise, since years ago we had Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and readers may 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.”

Doug Stowe

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