On the value of work

On our road trip earlier this autumn, H. and I read – aloud – Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew Crawford . (It was the first book in this season’s Take and Read.) We both enjoyed it.

Crawford is a philosopher and a mechanic with a Ph.D. who left a job at a think tank to open a motorcycle repair shop. In this book, he reflects on working with one’s hands, on the nature of knowledge, on human agency and self-reliance, on our relationship with material things. Essentially, he wants to rehabilitate manual work, to “give due credit to the cognitive richness of the skilled trades.” He quotes Anaxagoras: “It is by having hands that man is the most intelligent of animals.” Crawford’s not about making hand-work “precious” in some craftsy way, though, but about considering the rich ways in which we learn and know, about historical changes in work and what’s valued in work, and about ethical considerations in labouring.

H. is a drywall contractor who knows first-hand the shifts away from “shop class” Crawford is talking about, and the growing difficulty of finding workers in his trade (and the construction trades generally) who are interested in making a solid career of it. (And, says Crawford, a good career can be made of it.) H. also likes motorcycles (a lot) and I’m afraid he completely understood all those chapters about the education of a gearhead and Crawford’s involvement with a clutch road oil seal, which I floated through without comprehension, just taking his word for it!

For my part, I was intrigued by the chapter (“The Contradictions of the Cubicle”) on work shifts within corporations/institutions. The shift here, Crawford says, is one in which managers are “now encouraged to direct [their] attention to the states of minds of workers, and become a sort of therapist.” Office environments have taken up the obligations and mantras of personality — now more important than knowledge. It’s about preparing people for teamwork rather than focusing on specific competencies, and about managing “corporate culture.”

When I returned to the workplace after a couple of decades away, I certainly noticed this shift, though it’s Crawford who gives me words for it. I found emphasis on team spirit, buying into institutional mission, what kind of personality I am and how that relates to personalities around me. How, that is, I was doing as a person (or team player). Less ongoing attention was paid, in an external and formal way in the workplace structures at least, to my competencies as an editor or to the work I was producing.

These statements are not meant to cast that particular workplace (a church institution) in a negative light, but to affirm anecdotally that the shift Crawford documents is everywhere. It’s also fair to note that since reading Crawford’s critique of the ubiquitous new paradigm, I’ve found myself wondering how it’s affected, for good or bad, the ethos of the denomination in which I worked. All of which to say that this is a book worth reading and thinking about further.