Matthew Crawford got a PhD in Political Philosophy from the University of Chicago. Then he abandoned academia after a year, abandoned a Washington DC think-tank job after five months, and opened a one-man motorcycle repair shop.
He thinks more now than when he worked at think-tank. He’s part of a vibrant, intuitive, well-educated community. He’s proud of his work, which matters deeply to his customers. His decisions aren’t arbitrarily changed by a superior. His job won’t suddenly be shipped to India.
Of course, most people assume fixing motorcycles was the only job he could get.
Matthew’s book “Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work” will be published this week. There’s an excerpt in the New York Times Magazine.
The television show “Deadliest Catch” depicts commercial crab fishermen in the Bering Sea. Another, “Dirty Jobs,” shows all kinds of gruelling work; one episode featured a guy who inseminates turkeys for a living. The weird fascination of these shows must lie partly in the fact that such confrontations with material reality have become exotically unfamiliar. Many of us do work that feels more surreal than real. Working in an office, you often find it difficult to see any tangible result from your efforts. What exactly have you accomplished at the end of any given day? Where the chain of cause and effect is opaque and responsibility diffuse, the experience of individual agency can be elusive. “Dilbert,” “The Office” and similar portrayals of cubicle life attest to the dark absurdism with which many Americans have come to view their white-collar jobs.
Is there a more “real” alternative (short of inseminating turkeys)?
High-school shop-class programs were widely dismantled in the 1990s as educators prepared students to become “knowledge workers.” The imperative of the last 20 years to round up every warm body and send it to college, then to the cubicle, was tied to a vision of the future in which we somehow take leave of material reality and glide about in a pure information economy. This has not come to pass. To begin with, such work often feels more enervating than gliding. More fundamentally, now as ever, somebody has to actually do things: fix our cars, unclog our toilets, build our houses.
When we praise people who do work that is straightforwardly useful, the praise often betrays an assumption that they had no other options. We idealize them as the salt of the earth and emphasise the sacrifice for others their work may entail. Such sacrifice does indeed occur — the hazards faced by a lineman restoring power during a storm come to mind. But what if such work answers as well to a basic human need of the one who does it? I take this to be the suggestion of Marge Piercy’s poem “To Be of Use,” which concludes with the lines “the pitcher longs for water to carry/and a person for work that is real.” Beneath our gratitude for the lineman may rest envy.
Photo excerpt: Robert Adamo, the New York Times.