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Shop Class as Soulcraft

A book every craftsman should read

“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?”
–Matthew Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: Penquin Press, 2009

I recently taught a class on Mastering the Miter Saw to a group of mixed-age students at the West Valley Occupational Center, near my home in Los Angeles. I’ve volunteered to teach classes there before. The instructors teach drafting, framing, electrical, drywall—a general hands-on course covering everything about construction with blackboard backup. It’s a great program for anyone new to the trades. But I was surprised to find the class stalled by a lack of building materials. One instructor was digging into his own pocket to keep his class going.

Every time there’s a fiscal mess in California, the first budget cuts are always made to shop classes, after all, building materials are expensive and manual trades aren’t ‘higher education’; our educational culture believes that computer classes support the type of knowledge that workers need today.

Most people reading this magazine would probably have the same gut reaction as me about California’s budget decision. But after reading Michael Crawford’s new book Shop Class as Soulcraft, I’ve found concrete reasons that support the need for a new educational direction in our country.

Crawford begins his book by borrowing a description of the Fibonacci series—which forms the basis for Architecture’s golden ratio—from Tom Hull, a shop instructor in Coos Bay, Oregon.

Hull says, “‘the sequence portrays a human characteristic as well, as the ratio is not immediately achieved, but gets closer and closer, and not by some steady slope to perfection but by selfcorrecting oscillations’.”

Crawford adds: “This seems to capture the kind of iterated self-criticism, in light of some ideal that is never quite attained, whereby the craftsman advances in his art. You give it your best, learn from your mistakes and the next time get a little closer to the image you started with in your head.”

No description could better capture the act of carpentry. We imagine the project we’re about to tackle, maybe we even have exact dimensional drawings, but no matter how experienced or how hard we try, we’re never able to achieve the perfect image we begin with, the ideal of perfection we originally imagined: there’s always some small mistake or error, some imperfection that most people wouldn’t notice, but we know it’s there. In fact, when you look at a finished project, sometimes all you see are the mistakes, even if there’s just one.

But perfection is never the real goal of carpentry or the real reward. The goal is to get as close as possible to the original idea; the reward is to see your work—and judge yourself—at the end of every day.

This process of learning the hard way, through experience of both mind and hand—along with the personal judgment and frequent sense of failure that follows, is at the center of Crawford’s book, and forms the foundation for what Crawford refers to as “agency:” the act of engaging the world around us with our hands and tools—of ‘fixing
or making’ things, what Crawford refers to as “instrumentality.”

The loss of instrumentality infuses Crawford’s book and his theory of education: “…we have come to live in a world that precisely does not elicit our instrumentality,” Crawford writes, “We have too few occasions to do anything.”

“Doing” is the most important part of learning, yet ‘doing’ has been removed from our educational system: the tangible experience of failure, which leads to competence and confidence, has been replaced by the hollow support of a hollow ideal—self-esteem. Too often these days, students never learn from failure. They’re taught to pass tests. But failing a test isn’t failure. Making an 1/8-in. mistake while cutting a piece of radius crown that costs $1,000—now that’s failure!

If you ever felt sleepy in trigonometry and couldn’t grasp the meaning or the use of tangent, sine, and cosine formulas, and if you’re now happily using a framing square or Rise and Run functions on a calculator, then you know exactly what I mean. There is an effective difference between teaching abstract theory—what Crawford calls  “interpretive knowledge,” and hand’s-on experience—what Crawford calls “objective standards.” The former is open to interpretation and opinion; the latter is either right or wrong, like a door that either latches or doesn’t; a miter or cope joint that’s either tight or isn’t.

Throughout this book, Crawford’s background in philosophy is clear and present (he has a Ph.D. in political philosophy from the University of Chicago). Many pages overwhelmed me. But his gritty anecdotal examples, mostly taken from the experience of working on motorcycles in his own shop (he’s a motorcycle mechanic/philosopher), were landmarks that helped me follow the trail of his thoughts with ease.

Yes, this book is about motorcycles. It will remind many readers of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. But while Robert Pirsig struggled with inner and sometimes untouchable demons, and deeper philosophical issues, Crawford offers a simple suggestion on what can be done to improve our educational system and the underlying value system of our culture.

Though he has been attacked by some critics as misjudging the value of office work and stereotyping management, progress—like carpentry—can’t be made without failure, pain, and passion. In respect to this book, progress takes on a special irony, because changing our educational system would be more like removing an old dam than building a new one—changing the simple belief that manual work isn’t worth teaching in our school system. Of course, we all know better than that because we’re carpenters. We know what works and we know what doesn’t.


3 Responses to “Shop Class as Soulcraft”

  1. j watson

    I had been meaning to pick this book up, and by chance I found it sitting on the bookshelf of a rented condo in Mammoth Lakes last summer.

    I try to take good care of books, especially borrowed ones, but I left tears of rage and sometimes joy at what I’m reading on a good many borrowed pages. Anyone who builds or fixes his own stuff will see himself in here.

    If you’ve ever wondered how manual labor became a dirty word in some circles, I think there may be some answers here for you. This book came into my hands just as “what the hell have I been doing?” demanded answers. It really talked me off the ledge.

    Some reviewers of this book have called it too “highbrow”. Whenever I read non-fiction I have a dictionary handy and I referred to it sometimes here, but following the author’s train of thought is no harder than reading a set of house plans. The effort is rewarding the same way “seeing” the house in your mind is rewarding.

    Shop Class as Soulcraft is the book my son selected to read for his high school AP English class. I can’t help thinking it’ll shed some light on what makes his old man tick.


  2. MechanismBusboy

    I loved this book…although its constant reminder of the similarities and sameness I have with the author (and I’m sure tens of thousands of other dudes out there) freaked me out. I’m a tradesman. Carpenter and woodworker like the idolized craftsmen of the book and also a solar electrician (Crawford was an electrician). I also rebuild motorcycles. I read this while I was a shop teacher — and I had my students read parts of it in my class. I’m also a bit of a compulsive reader of philosophy — so getting this book as a gift was sort of a nuclear implosion.

    This book is solid reading — its certainly not high brow, it just has high expectations for its readers, and assumes that we are smart and well read. I saw Crawford speak in a bookstore in Oakland CA and the crowd that had come to see him speak was, well, old and probably pretty academic. I was bummed that I was the only 30 something in there and had hoped to see a groundswell behind his writing.

    On a final note, as an ROP teacher in northern CA — Gary, you couldn’t be more right about lack of resources for Career Tech Education… but shop teachers scrounging for materials and battling for budgets isn’t that new — counselors, colleges, and the general media have waged a successful war on the trades and manual labor — as has tract housing, the repetitive sameness of the American house, as well the builders that have stressed size over quality, the loss of innovation and variety that comes with monopolization in our industry, think Home Depot, and the stagnation (indeed drop) of wages in the trades has caused a flight from my classroom and others. My students thought they were resigning to career in the trades (I’m too dumb or poor to go to college). Is it not ironic that Home Depots are filled with ex-tradespeople now making 9 dollars/hr? Many of my students (not all) were mostly encouraged to take my class so that they could be off their home campuses where they had behavior and gang problems. We need to bring back the glory that once was bestowed the skill of housebuilding, and the making of things in general. This glory means that it pays a living wage — and that customers want that skill, that quality, and don’t think they could replicate it themselves. HGTV has got every American thinking that they can build a house from the foundation to the roof themselves… just install it here! The truth is, they are probably right.

    Scott Mikal

    • Gary Katz

      Great comment. I was especially keen about the quality thing. Just re-reading Shibumi, published in 1979. Trevanian describes the difference between Japanese and American “culture” at the end of WWII: “…At best, they are a mannered technology. In place of ethics, they have rules. Size functions for them as quality functions for us. What for us is honor and dishonor, for them is winning and losing.”

      Glad you’re enjoying TiC!


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