Parenting As Soul Craft

Matthew-B-Crawford-600 I just ordered Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work from Amazon for myself, though it would probably make a fabulous father's day gift.

The New Yorker has a review of the book this week. I haven't read the book yet, but the review piqued my interest. The author, Matthew B. Crawford, is a University of Chicago PhD in political theory and a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. He also runs a motorcycle repair shop in Richmond.

Crawford rejects the demands and rewards of the modern economy and calls for a return to the simple pleasures of working with your hands. Lose the office cubicle and pick up a socket wrench.

For Crawford, the failure to appreciate skilled manual labor is a
symptom of something even worse: a narcissistic refusal to grapple with
the material world. He quotes a long scene from “Zen and the Art of
Motorcycle Maintenance,” in which the narrator has a frustrating
encounter with careless mechanics who can’t be bothered to correctly
diagnose his bike. Crawford’s stern verdict: this is “at once an
ethical and a cognitive failure.” Such mechanics show, in their
disregard for the motorcycle, how little they care about their
profession, and, by extension, their fellow-citizens. Crawford says
that big corporations—including, for instance, the ones that produce
cheap motorcycle engines that aren’t worth fixing—tend to encourage
this kind of anomie, by forcing workers to stick to mindless tasks or
insipid scripts, thereby making it hard for them to take pride in their

The review, which is excellent, explores where to put Crawford and the slow cooking movement on the left-right continuum. On the one hand, Crawford seems to have conservative credentials with a grant from the Olin Foundation. He critiques the feminized office place. He hearkens back to the good old days when men were men and when manual labor jobs hadn't been exported to Southeast Asia.

On the other hand, his message almost Marxist as he critiques the modern capitalist system. There is a lot of overlap with the environmental movement and the slow cooking movement, which have the gold seal of liberal approval.

I also see a lot of overlap with those who take parenting seriously. Making good kids isn't all that different from fixing motorcycles. I just sent my kids off to school with their lunches and class trip money. Jonah and I discussed how we were going to finish the sixth Harry Potter in time for the movie in July. I had Ian draw a picture of Spongebob on his brown bag lunch. The breakfast dishes have been cleaned and the calendar for the month organized. It's deeply satisfying to have everything in order and the kids unstressed. Parenting is still seen as a conservative project, but, like Crawford, I think it defies ideological boundaries.

UPDATE: Here's the review from the New York Times. Stanley Fish talks about this book and the other motorcycle books.

UPDATE2: From Crawford's magazine article,

Some diagnostic situations contain a lot of variables. Any given
symptom may have several possible causes, and further, these causes may
interact with one another and therefore be difficult to isolate. In
deciding how to proceed, there often comes a point where you have to
step back and get a larger gestalt. Have a cigarette and walk around
the lift. The gap between theory and practice stretches out in front of
you, and this is where it gets interesting. What you need now is the
kind of judgment that arises only from experience; hunches rather than
rules. For me, at least, there is more real thinking going on in the
bike shop than there was in the think tank.

Every academic dropout must read this article.


18 thoughts on “Parenting As Soul Craft

  1. “He critiques the feminized office place.”
    I’m the only man in my office (except for a part-timer or two). It isn’t bad, but the women seem to spend a great deal of time on things that would never occur to me. For example, I don’t understand the point of jeans day.


  2. That last sentence in the last quote really hit home. I think there is more thinking going on in a bike shop because the thinking leads to something. It’s not mental masturbation; it’s thinking about getting results.


  3. I admit that I did find a certain satisfaction in framing houses and building grain bins that I don’t find now. I think part of it is just how visible the days efforts are (a crew of four can frame a small house in a few days or erect a grain bin in one). On the other hand, I sort of enjoy not worrying about falling from 20 feet or more.


  4. “The gap between theory and practice stretches out in front of you, and this is where it gets interesting.”
    I think this is true for more than just manual labor — and that tying the idea to the physical manipulation of objects is wrong. Ideas, data, numbers, all of which are not manipulated with one’s hands matter. It’s when they get disconnected from their real world effects that we get “think” tanks.
    Let’s think about physicians, who walk through the same process in diagnosing a patient (it’s not all that different from diagnosing the motorcycle, except that bodies are more complicated, the stakes are higher, and people talk a lot more, and sometimes lie/mislead to you and themselves). Think about politicians, who try to run the actual world. Think about teachers, who have to deal with real children and not education theory.


  5. A couple of weeks ago, I was watching the Orthodonist wire up Jonah’s mouth for braces. I was really impressed with how skilled he was with the pliers. He knitted those wires into Jonah’s mouth. It was fascinating.
    “It’s when they get disconnected from their real world effects that we get “think” tanks.” Between this book and Brooks’s chapter on the Intellectual Industry, I’m disgusted with the whole business. I spent 8 years in one as a grad student.


  6. This past spring I stumbled upon a talk by Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs, which led to probably the greatest assignment I’ve ever done (a whole project writing about/responding to TEDTalks videos, which I should turn into a paper or article or something). Anyway, Rowe’s talk is here, and I recommend you watch it. I haven’t read the Crawford book or reviews yet, but Rowe argues that we’ve had a war against work, and that people who do “dirty jobs” are some of the happiest people he’s met. He also says that the worst advice he’s ever heard is to tell people to “follow their dreams.”
    He’s very persuasive, but ultimately I think he’s missing something, and maybe Crawford is, too. The demeaning of manual labor has some relation, I think, to the demeaning of unions. People don’t choose to do the “dirty jobs” any more because unions are being weakened and they don’t have the same guarantees of benefits that make the “dirty jobs” worthwhile.
    And finally, Mike Rowe is way cuter than Crawford. 😉


  7. “People don’t choose to do the “dirty jobs” any more because unions are being weakened and they don’t have the same guarantees of benefits that make the “dirty jobs” worthwhile.”
    I suspect that things are going to be very different for the next five years or so. We are about to find out if it is really true that “there are jobs Americans won’t do.”


  8. “A couple of weeks ago, I was watching the Orthodonist wire up Jonah’s mouth for braces. I was really impressed with how skilled he was with the pliers.”
    Yeah, this is definitely true about health care professionals; they can have seriously cool physical skills. Watching an expert clean a wound, for example, how they work systematically from one part to another, automatically turn the gauze so that clean gauze is always used on a new area, the efficiency and cleanliness of the whole process, is fascinating (so, too, watching someone scrub up for surgery).
    But, health care professionals say that the “technicians” are paid for their work — surgeons are better compensated than the idea guys (cardiologists/heart surgeons, neurologists/neurosurgeons, . . . .).
    Why is it different for other manual labor? presumably because significant skills don’t necessarily add significant value, right?


  9. “Why is it different for other manual labor? presumably because significant skills don’t necessarily add significant value, right?”
    It isn’t that different except that the skills have to be hard to acquire (or there has to be some type of artificial barrier) before you can get higher wages. You will certainly find huge wage differentials between an actual mechanic and a technician. An actual carpenter makes much more than the rest of the crew. And, those who can do manual labor more quickly or significantly better than others will usually start their own business if they can’t get higher wages.


  10. Alright, now I’m doing a 180 on this topic.
    If handiwork is so great and ideawork is so boring, why did this guy put down his wrench to write a book? And it’s not a how to fix your bike book. It’s an idea book with lots of reference to Marx. The audience for his book isn’t bike repair dudes. It’s effete intellectuals.
    Can you imagine the editorial meeting about this book? They were probably salivating at the marketing potential of Marx-reading, bike dude.


  11. I think we don’t value the people who do manual work. Many aren’t well educated and can’t articulate the thought and problem solving required by the work. Crawford will be lauded for the book and we will continue to not value the people.
    This is why I really hate the college for eveyone stuff. Sitting in a classroom is not for everyone and trying to make it the goal is trying to make everyone fit a particular mold. Let’s get away from the focus on credentials and put it back on skills.
    Unions could help with apprencticeships, but they too often act as an additional barrier. You can’t get an apprenticeship unless you know somebody. (At least in my experience with the building trades.)


  12. OK, brace for the snark. I would argue that the only reason everyone feels OK lauding this guy is because he went to the U of C. No “uncredentialed” mechanic could say this kinda stuff and get the time of day from the NY Times editorial board. And that’s where I start getting upset — that you’re only respected for your manual work if it has some sort of white collar, “lifestyle choice” patina.
    In the computer world I operate in, people are usually judged solely on their skills. No one knows who went to school where, because it just totally does not matter. (We’re all quite aware of who can really resurrect the server after hours, however.) But even in this world if you have any outward blue collar markers (south side accent, not-perfect teeth, children you obviously had when you were under 25) it will be held against you. Yuck.


  13. Right on, jen.
    The quote from the article about judgement reminds me of the story of the experienced engineer called in to fix a printing press that was down and whose problems had baffled everyone else. He crawled all around it for about 20 minutes and finally took his hammer and gave it a good whack somewhere deep in the innards. The bill read, “Repair with hammer, $50; Knowing where to use hammer, $5000.”
    I did two summers and a winter break in oil refinery construction/maintenance, which was quite enough thanks. Construction, especially the industrial kind, is a young man’s game. All of the guys (and they were all guys, though this may have changed in the intervening 20 years) were looking for ways to move up or get out. The best foreman I had (“Nubby”) was slowly getting a marketing degree. I hope he’s working in an air-conditioned office these days, instead of overseeing guys on the night shift way up in the pipe rack.
    There can be dignity in every kind of work, but the biggest luxury Crawford has is that he can choose to do his shop work.


  14. Good point, Doug. My dad was the third generation to work in the steel mills in the southside of Chicago. He worked in there while he was a student at University of Chicago. (How’s that for symmetry?) He still talks about how hard he would sweat in those places, but he also has stories about the interesting people that he met while working there. I think manual labor is a different experience if you’re just doing it part-time.
    Couple of other quick notes. I ordered this book from Amazon, but it will take three days to get here, so I googled around to find other stuff that he’s written. Came across this article in Atlantis. The writing is really good. I’m looking forward to getting the book in my hand.
    People like Drezner are always going on about how academics need to be public intellectuals. Well, Crawford said that he ended up in the bike shop, because the academic market was so dreadful. He didn’t want to bounce around the country to various one year gigs. Then he wrote the book. Maybe the dreadful job market will lead to good books and the public intellectual thing.
    Should we actually read this book and do a book club later in the summer?


  15. One more quick note. Crawford comes out of the Committee on Social Thought at the U of C. This is the best interdisciplinary program that I’ve ever seen. Maybe it’s the only good one.


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