catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 24 :: 2009.12.11 — 2009.12.24


Fixing the toilet in the ivory tower

Bodies matter.  Physical work is inseparable from mental reflection. Society forgets how to do stuff at its own peril.  “Thinking is inherently bound up with doing.” 

Matthew Crawford, an oddly-blended philosopher/motorcycle mechanic and now author, defends these and other principles in Shop Class as Soulcraft.  His book is a fascinating text to behold, even from a purely sociological point of view.  Why would anyone in the trades want to read a book written by a philosopher about why manual work matters?  Who from any self-respecting philosophy department would read a book written by a motorcycle mechanic about why manual labor has fallen from favor in contemporary society?  Crawford (and undoubtedly Penguin Press) is counting on this juxtaposition to cast his argument into the public square.  I think their gamble will pay off, and that readers will all be better off for it. 

When my wife and kids gave me this book for Father’s Day last summer, I was intrigued.  As I began to read, I immediately knew this was a book for my Dad to read as well.  Together we represent Crawford’s two identities: the academic and the mechanic.  This book could help us figure each other out!  Turns out I was partly right.  As you might suspect, I am manually challenged in every sense of the word.  In 2002, my wife and I bought a house, built in 1924, in an urban neighborhood.  This 85-year-old wonder is a beautiful specimen of a house, but it needs pretty regular care, most of which would be better given at a skilled level.  I have no intuitive abilities to pull this off well.  Enter my Dad.  Recently retired from a forty-year career working with huge and complex mechanical presses at a General Motors stamping plant, he now spends three days a week working at our local hardware store, helping people figure out how to fix and maintain things, including 85-year-old houses in our neighborhood.  A perfect match.

Crawford explains why my Dad’s skills have been systematically devalued by society over the past two centuries.  Using examples from his stock-in-trade of repairing and restoring antique European motorcycles, and drawing from his experiences as an academic, he reminds readers that the trades require a unique blend of intellect and skill, better known as craft.  Our push in society in recent decades toward a near-universal expectation that young people with even the least hint of a professional inclination should expect to attend college has had the unintended consequence of forcing a false choice between head and hands.  Crawford argues that for many, this has resulted in a set of career options that often precludes the manual trades, on the assumption that these do not require intellectual aptitude.  Shop Class as Soulcraft stands as a testament to the contrary, highlighting themes of human agency and the importance of failure for true success. Shop Class as Soulcraft explores the idea of human community and work, and finally, sketches a picture of what the possibility of full human flourishing might look like through work, leisure and full human engagement.

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