Sunday, February 10, 2013

Shop Class as Soulcraft, by Matthew B. Crawford

Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, by Matthew B. Crawford

Matthew Crawford is clearly a Marxist. A very funny Marxist that writes and debates well, but a Marxist nonetheless. While normally I roll my eyes at those that expound on the battle between the proletariat and bourgeoisie, Crawford takes a particular approach that not only fascinates, but is widely appealing. Shop Class as Soulcraft is a treatise on how the ongoing abstraction of life and the loss of individual tangible skills is leading towards a world where very few actually maintain mastery of anything, and how that is bad for everyone.

In our society children are increasingly pushed to go to college, regardless of their natural bent. If you don't have a degree you are considered to be not quite smart enough to be promoted or even obtain a white collar job. I believe this is utterly ridiculous, but still find myself somewhat propagating the myth with my kids. While I do have a degree, other than the checkbox that gets ticked for certain job applications it didn't really do much to advance me in my chosen field of software development. I'm quite proud of my degree (and I love my Longhorns!) because it was the first thing I'd earned that was due to my effort—nobody forced me to go to class or called my parents if I failed a test; I truly earned the degree because I wanted it. That said, virtually nothing I was taught about computers actually applied to the real world; I wasn't interested in academia and developing software for a living was nothing like the often silly assignments done in class. I did take a "software engineering" course, but the professor was easily the worst one I encountered during my tenure (although I quite liked and respected her husband) and the closest thing to relevance we learned was COCOMO, an even then somewhat outdated estimation model. But I digress. :) Some of the most talented and successful people I've encountered in my career don't have college degrees. Others that have been influential in my professional development have degrees in subjects other than software, such as film. Interestingly, some (but not all!) of the least impressive people with whom I've ever worked have degrees from MIT, to the point where I actually consider a degree from there a point against someone rather than a point in favor. Of course this isn't to say that a college degree is meaningless for everyone not interested in staying inside academia, but with our culture pushing everyone to a university, what do you tell a high school student in today's world? Crawford says, "if you have a natural bent for scholarship ... go to college. ... But if this is not the case; if the thought of sitting in a classroom makes your skin crawl, the good news is that you don't have to go through the motions ... for the sake of making a decent living. Even if you do go to college, learn a trade in the summers. You're likely to be less damaged, and quite possibly better paid, as an independent tradesman than a cubicle-dwelling tender of information systems." I certainly don't consider college "damaging" and truly do treasure the wide variety of people and views to which I was exposed during my university years, but I do somewhat prefer this advice to what my son's high school counselors seem to espouse. After all, what do you do with a B.A. in English?

Not sure where that college rant came from, I clearly have some unresolved issues there! Regardless, there are many other topics in Shop Class as Soulcraft worth discussing. Crawford covers subjects from outsourcing ("You can't hammer a nail over the Internet.") to modern management techniques. His lament that blue-collar work has devolved from a "craft" molded by tradition and experience to a "process" where anyone can perform complex tasks with minimal training simply by following instructions is particularly heartfelt. Quite a bit of this resonated with me, but at the same time I think he is missing the boat entirely. Crawford believes that a pride of accomplishment is largely absent from corporate America; we are all cogs in a larger machine with the people at the top completely out-of-touch with what is actually built and the people at the bottom unclear on the larger picture. If I'd spent my entire career at IBM, Hewlett-Packard, or BMC I might be able to believe that. These organizations innovate and create by acquiring other, smaller companies and rarely build anything interesting on their own. However, to say pride is absent in those acquired start-up companies where new ideas become reality and everyone from accountants to developers are passionate about what they are doing and aligned on the eventual goal is downright silly.

Clearly this book pushed several buttons for me and I quite enjoyed reading it. As with most treatises it is fairly biased and presents its opinion as "right" and the current social norm as "wrong" which is entirely too one-sided. I believe someone can find job satisfaction sitting in a cube, or pulling wire at a construction site, or patrolling a border in a hostile country. Corporate America isn't necessarily unethical or soul-crushing, but neither is tradecraft necessarily a good choice for everyone. As someone that sometimes struggles when asked the seemingly simple question, "What did you do today?" (or the much harder "Why do you change jobs so often?") I found this an intriguing—and somewhat disturbing—read.

First Sentence:
Tom Hull teaches welding, machine shop, auto shop, sheet metal work, and computer-aided drafting at Marshfield High School in Coos Bay, Oregon.

1 comment:

Terrill Richardson said...

I agree with you. Having a degree is more about the club. It’s a badge, a secret handshake, a wink wink nudge nudge that you too spent way too much time drinking beer and spending your parent’s money or racking up unreasonable debt. I do find it interesting, however, that today’s trends of the one price tuition. There is a lot of competition for students out there and more and more universities are being run like a business (some are, of course) and therefore must find ways of satisfying the “shareholders.” I do like you comment on the fact that it was the first thing you did that was your own. Perhaps that is the biggest reward for going to college; learning that you can and should have a lifetime of learning.

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