From my review of Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, published today by The Englewood Review of Books:
If you were in high school any time before the early 1990’s you remember shop class. Or vo-ag, or industrial arts, or whatever it might have been called back in the day. You may or may not have participated in shop class but you were vaguely aware (and probably wholly uncritical) of the fact that, because of shop class, an intellectual, social, and economic divide was created, one with all sorts of implications for what kind of achievement was valued and rewarded.
When the promise of an information economy dawned those two decades ago, most shop classes were turned into computer labs. The nagging concern of liberal pedagogues had always been that sorting students into “college prep” or “vocational ed” tracks created and fostered a kind of educational apartheid. But this worry gave way to sunny predictions that everyone—all students everywhere—could become “knowledge workers” in the fast-approaching high-tech world of work.
In his new book, Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew Crawford narrates this history and, more importantly, its fallout for our contemporary understandings of work and the value of work. While “college prep” and “vocational ed” denoted and perpetuated a troubling form of occupational determinism, college, Crawford notes, was (and is) thought to be the “ticket to an open future.” Craftsmanship, he says, “entails learning to do one thing really well,” while the new information-based economy celebrates “potential rather than achievement.”
And so Crawford sets out with a great deal of philosophical acumen and curmudgeonly wit to argue for the cognitive richness and moral significance of manual work. He comes by his philosophy honestly, having studied at the University of Chicago and serving for a time as a postdoctoral fellow on its Committee on Social Thought. His tendency to be a bit of grumbler (though a clever and amusing one) also seems hard-won; in his current work as an electrician and motorcycle repairman in Richmond, Virginia, Crawford ponders questions like this: “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?”
To read the rest of the review, click here