Monday, January 21, 2013

Shop class as soul craft - book summary


Crawford, M. (2009). Shop class as soul craft: An inquiry into the value of work. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
Worked through this book in greater detail over the last few days. Second hand book in pristine condition purchased through Amazon, taking about a month to arrive in NZ, just in time for summer weekend when it was too hot to do much gardening or walk in the hills.

I had borrowed the book from the library and browsed through the book when it was first released. This time a good opportunity to read the book in greater depth.  Here are notes taken, summarising each chapter of book.

Introduction provides background on the decline of ‘shop class’ in the U S of A and Crawford’s thesis that the manual occupations are still important in contemporary life due to our reliance on large numbers of material goods. People who make, maintain and repair things are now more important than ever (as per $$ we pay plumber to unblock drains) and yet the education system puts its main emphasis into preparing ‘knowledge workers’.

1.       A brief case for the useful arts. Here the discussion revolves around how manual work can be fulfilling and requiring use of both bodily and cognitive skills. Plus an argument on how some forms of work in the trades, cannot be ‘outsourced’. So American workers in occupations that can be accomplished remotely (accounting, IT, call centres etc. ) may be more at risk to job restructure than builders / carpenters and joiners who build houses.

2.       The separation of thinking from doing. An overview of how thinking and doing has been seen to be either white or blue collar. Some white collar work is now similar to ‘assembly line’ work and some blue collar requires high levels of adaptability and innovation.

3.       To be a master of one’s own stuff. In this chapter, the argument for work to allow individual agency is presented. Plus some history on the development of motorcycles (and cars) from being fixable by the ‘amateur’ to being difficult for even mechanics to get into.  How society has moved from individuals being able to rectify their own tools / appliances / vehicles to machinery becoming so complex (and relatively cheap to replace) has removed individual’s choice to fix and re-use. Yet, it is more satisfying for humans to have input (using cake mix example – all in product does not sell as well as a product that requires the addition of an egg).

4.       The education of a gearhead. The chapter traces Crawford’s development as a mechanic His first experiences as an apprentice in an automotive workshop where he did the boss’s housekeeping before being allowed to clean engine parts. And reflections on learning the complexities of automotive engineering from mentors, mistakes, dwelling on problems, development of individual understanding and knowledge base.

5.       The further education of a gearhead: from amateur to professional. Here Crawford describes his on-going learning as a motor cycle mechanic and self-employed business owner. How he learns on the job by undertaking difficult work on obscure, older models of motor cycles. How he undercharges as some of the jobs take effort to work through beyond what would seem to be commercially viable charge out rates.

6.       The contradictions of the cubicle. Provides examples of some of his ‘knowledge worker’ jobs and how some have become production line orientated, as per his work indexing and abstracting articles, or without clear outputs that lead to job satisfaction (work in a ‘think tank’).

7.       Thinking as doing. Provides arguments and examples of how manual work involves many aspects of having to also use large amounts of brain power. How practical know how is difficult to pin down. Examples include fire fighters’ ‘sixth sense’, common sense and tacit knowledge in automotive trouble shooting (lubricant or air to clean spark plug based on recent weather  activity or if sand is found around the vehicle), the role of being able to ‘ask the right question’ in problem solving, deciphering archaic and poorly translated vehicle repair manuals.

8.       Work, leisure and full engagement. How leisure and work may be complementary. Also how many people now work to earn $$ to indulge in activities that feed their soul. Perhaps some forms of manual work may both earns $$ and be fulfilling.

Concluding remarks on solidarity and self reliance: Summarises the argument – to have a trade skill means having solidarity with other trade workers in the same field (understanding a common language / ethos and practising skills), being attuned to learning from mistakes / failure and yet taking individual responsibility for one’s on-going learning and improvement.

The notes themselves make interesting reading, some revealing Crawford’s personal history, others filling in on the specialist knowledge of motor cycle repair and overviews of various philosophical approaches. The style of writing is readable without being condescending to the reader.