Books : reviews

Matthew B. Crawford.
The Case for Working with Your Hands (== Shop Class as Soulcraft) .
Penguin. 2009

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 21 August 2011

Heidegger and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Crawford argues that many "blue collar" jobs, such as mending motorbikes, are more rewarding than "white collar" office jobs. They require problem solving (diagnosing obscure faults in old bikes with no manuals), success is objectively defined (the bike now works, or it doesn't), there is being part of a "crew" with your own essential role, there is direct personal involvement with the customer, there is self-reliance, autonomy and responsibility, and such jobs are secure from off-shoring. Yet people are encouraged to go to university, to get degrees that qualify them for office work (with a learning style that trains them for it, too), only to discover that they are bored, frustrated, part of a meaningless "team", or even unemployed. Crawford has direct experience of both styles. He has been an electrician and is currently a motorcycle repairer, running his own shop. Yet he also has Masters and Doctoral degrees, and has worked as a scientific paper abstract writer (among other things).

He makes a persuasive case. I certainly agree that there is little point in spending three or so years making the minimum effort to get a degree in a subject in which you have little interest, that is merely a paper requirement for a job that doesn't actually use any of the skills or learning. This just leads to demotivated students, a dumbed-down and uncritical learning environment, and a population in permanent debt. (The cynic might argue that the last point is the whole point.)

However, I believe he also makes an over-romanticised case. The thing that made this clear to me was an anecdote that he told explicitly to demonstrate that he isn't romanticising the trades: his experience as "the new guy" in a crew wiring a building development. The teasing/hazing/bullying (call it what you will) eventually drove him to quit. He says that this is an endemic problem in lightly-managed crews, and that the new guy, the non-white guy, and the woman will be subject to this. Note that he was the "new guy", and in this instance couldn't stick it. Being the "new guy" isn't a permanent condition -- it stops as soon as the next "new guy" joins the crew. But being the "non-white guy" or the "woman" is a permanent condition -- the hazing never stops for such people. He passes over this issue without comment.

It's also not true that (all) office work has no "objective standards". The work I am most experienced with -- coding -- certainly does. You code compiles, or it doesn't; it passes the unit tests, or it doesn't. Even the office job he experienced -- writing abstracts of scientific papers -- has a degree of objectivity -- is it an accurate, concise, helpful abstract? The real problem he faced is that he wasn't being judged on these objective criteria, but on different ones: how many abstracts (of whatever quality) he was producing. He discusses how this leads to the problem of "learned irresponsibility". This can occur in the trades, too: building shoddy houses, doing shoddy repair work, all in the name of "efficiency" and "trimming costs". It happens when the worker (office or trade) isn't in control of the quality of their work.

So it seems to me it isn't so much about The Case for Working with Your Hands, but rather The Case for Working for Yourself.