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A doctorate's dirty hands hold a lesson

When Matthew Crawford finished his doctorate in political philosophy at the University of Chicago, he took a job at a Washington think tank. "I was always tired," he writes, "and honestly could not see the rationale for my being paid at all."

He quit after five months and started doing motorcycle repair in a decaying factory in Richmond, Va. This journey from philosopher manque to philosopher-mechanic is the arc of his new book, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work. It's appropriate that it arrives in May, the month when college seniors commence real life. Skip Dr. Seuss, or a tie from Vineyard Vines, and give them a copy for graduation.

The graduates won't even skim Shop Class, of course. But maybe, five years from now, when they can't understand why their high-paying jobs at Micron Consulting seem pointless and enervating, Crawford's writing will show them a way forward.

It's not an insult to say that Shop Class is the best self-help book that I've ever read. Almost all works in the genre skip the "self" part and jump straight to the "help." Crawford rightly asks whether today's cubicle dweller even has a respectable self. Many of us work in jobs with no discernible products or measurable results. We manage brands and implement initiatives, all the while basing our self-esteem on the opinions of others.

Compare that with the motorcycle mechanic. Instead of the vague threat of a performance review, the mechanic faces the tactile problem of a bike that won't start. He tests various theories and deploys actual tools. The sign of success is a roaring engine. In Shop Class, Crawford talks about fixing bikes and the analytical lessons he draws from his gearhead days. It's kind of like Heidegger and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In one virtuoso episode, an oil seal on a 1983 Honda Magnum V45 becomes a lesson in how curiosity can be dangerous when it becomes fixated. We become self-absorbed, even self-indulgent.

The ideal, when working on a bike, is to keep the customer in mind, to realize that messing with the bike (satisfying our curiosity) ultimately needs to be curtailed by consideration of the wider world — i.e., the customer, who doesn't want to overpay. As Crawford points out, much "knowledge work" lacks this element of practical wisdom, of opening out into the experience of others. Just go read a few dissertations.

While doing the work of a mechanic provides intellectual challenges and the intrinsic satisfactions of completing problems from start to finish, Crawford knows that working in the trades is seen as declasse and too limiting for a college graduate. And then he goes on to show how stupid that viewpoint is.

The first piece of evidence to consider is a quote from the Princeton economist Alan Binder about how the labor market of the next decades won't necessarily be divided between the highly educated and the less-educated: "The critical divide in the future may instead be between those types of work that are easily deliverable through a wire (or via wireless connections) with little or no diminution in quality and those that are not." Binder goes on to summarize his own take: "You can't hammer a nail over the Internet."

Learning a trade is not limiting but, rather, liberating. If you are in possession of a skill that cannot be exported overseas, done with an algorithm, or downloaded, you will always stand a decent chance of finding work. Even rarer, you will probably be a master of your own domain, something the thousands of employed but bored people in the service industries can only dream of.

Crawford distinguishes between trades such as carpentry or plumbing and traditional manufacturing jobs, lamenting the transformation that the arrival of "scientific management" in the early 1900s wrought in the latter: "(S)cattered craft knowledge is concentrated in the hands of the employer, then doled out again to workers in the form of minute instructions needed to perform some part of the process."

But, you, reading this on the computer, are surely light years away from the gears and cogs and debasing routine of Ford's assembly line. No. Crawford shows how the same thing that happened to trade work is happening to some forms of knowledge work, too.

Crawford focuses on cubicle life, the kind of job in a major city that many bright college grads would be happy to land: investment analyst, paralegal, junior marketing executive, sales associate. He doesn't have a lot to say directly about the caring professions, like teaching, or about self-styled Web artisans or slackers.

It's the cubicle and its "contradictions" that get him riled up. Just as in the assembly line, "(t)he cognitive elements of the job," writes Crawford, "are appropriated from professionals, instantiated in a system or process, and then handed back to the new class of workers — clerks — who replace the professionals." Look around the field in which you toil, be it advertising, finance or consulting. Who really gets to face new problems and make decisions based on their knowledge and instincts, and who is just another clerk, following instructions?

Now you begin to understand why you watch The Office. The cubicle life is amorphous. What are you actually making? How do you know if you are advancing at your job? Does sending e-mail all day help the brand? Does my boss think I am a good guy? It's an absurd situation, and "self-referential irony supplied by pop culture" helps one cope with that absurdity.

Crawford looks around at the sociologists who have studied office life and concludes that the office is best approached as a "place of moral education" with managers acting as therapists, concentrating on helping us become team players. The "team" is what launches the product, lands the account, drives the business. "The individual feels that, alone, he is without any effect," writes Crawford. And worse: "He has difficulty imagining how he might earn a living otherwise." The team makes us passive and helpless.

What distinguishes Crawford from his predecessors is how far blue-collar work, both in numbers and prestige, has fallen since even the '70s. Shop Class surveys an economic landscape where everyone must go to college or else be viewed as suspect, stupid, and/or unemployable. The massification of higher education has also created a new vocational pitfall: I've got a degree; therefore, I should be doing smart, clean, fun, and well-paid work. Except for clean, these adjectives can be scarce in cubicle alley.

What is the way out? We all can't become motorcycle mechanics. Crawford emerges from his tales of camshafts, Porsche repairs, and tales of hack jobs with some strategies for avoiding despondent alienation. The first is a notion of scale. It's satisfying to complete a task from start to finish. Start a small business, or learn a trade — really! Do you know how much plumbers make? It also helps to imbue what you do with a sense of craftsmanship.

Strive not for flimsy new economy "flexibility" but for real, handy expertise in a chosen field. The point is to achieve mastery, which in turn gives you a skill not subject to the whims of office politics. Finally, think about how your work affects others. This is a hedge against both narcissistic creativity and doing actual harm.

Now, I don't want to leave you with the impression that Crawford is sending us all off to plumbing school. He's not idiotic. His macroeconomic argument is this: "We in the West have arranged our institutions to prevent the concentration of political power. … But we have failed utterly to prevent the concentration of economic power, or take account of how such concentration damages the conditions under which full human flourishing becomes possible (it is never guaranteed)." You might call Crawford a locavore of work.

He wants economic policies that are human in scale and provide maximum opportunity for self-reliance and self-employment. That may sound like Declaration of Independence language, but it's not an amber-encased ideal. As Crawford shows, all freedom takes is a little willingness to get your hands greasy.

Michael Agger is a Slate senior editor.

Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work

By Matthew

Crawford

Penguin

320 pages, $25.95

A doctorate's dirty hands hold a lesson 05/23/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 23, 2009 4:31am]
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