Ryan’s notes

Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford


  • This is an excellent essay, and you do not need to read the book by the same title.


  • It appears shop class is becoming a thing of the past, as educators prepare students to become “knowledge workers.”

  • older readers will recall that until recent decades, Sears catalogues included blown-up parts diagrams and conceptual schematics for all appliances and many other mechanical goods. It was simply taken for granted that such information would be demanded by the consumer.

  • A decline in tool use would seem to betoken a shift in our mode of inhabiting the world: more passive and more dependent.

    • mediated

  • What ordinary people once made, they buy; and what they once fixed for themselves, they replace entirely or hire an expert to repair, whose expert fix often involves installing a pre-made replacement part.

    • Specialization

  • So perhaps the time is ripe for reconsideration of an ideal that has fallen out of favor: manual competence, and the stance it entails toward the built, material world. Neither as workers nor as consumers are we much called upon to exercise such competence, most of us anyway, and merely to recommend its cultivation is to risk the scorn of those who take themselves to be the most hard-headed: the hard-headed economist will point out the opportunity costs of making what can be bought, and the hard-headed educator will say that it is irresponsible to educate the young for the trades, which are somehow identified as the jobs of the past. But we might pause to consider just how hard-headed these presumptions are, and whether they don’t, on the contrary, issue from a peculiar sort of idealism, one that insistently steers young people toward the most ghostly kinds of work.

  • What is new is the wedding of future-ism to what might be called “virtualism”: a vision of the future in which we somehow take leave of material reality and glide about in a pure information economy. New and yet not so new — for fifty years now we’ve been assured that we are headed for a “post-industrial economy.” While manufacturing jobs have certainly left our shores to a disturbing degree, the manual trades have not.

    • becoming more apparent now as we struggle to build homes and infrastructure in the US, particularly worrisome given how much we're going to need to build to decarbonize :: Electrification

  • My real concern here is not with the economics of skilled manual work, but rather with its intrinsic satisfactions.

    • We've been pushing a narrative that we want to get away from skilled manual labor, but do we? Does this leave us richer, holistically speaking?

  • It was an experience of agency and competence. The effects of my work were visible for all to see, so my competence was real for others as well; it had a social currency.

  • craftsmanship might be defined simply as the desire to do something well, for its own sake.

    • I feel this so strongly, and have since a very early age :: My view on work

  • The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on.

    • Hah! Self-actualization being a greater and greater burden the more specialized and abstract your work. I think I've written about this before, the idea that I'd like to be able to point to my work, the idea of "Before Ryan" and "After Ryan," painting a wall. :: My view on work

  • Being able to think materially about material goods, hence critically, gives one some independence from the manipulations of marketing, which typically divert attention from what a thing is to a back-story intimated through associations, the point of which is to exaggerate minor differences between brands. Knowing the production narrative, or at least being able to plausibly imagine it, renders the social narrative of the advertisement less potent.

    • Stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. If we are less grounded in our own work, our own contribution, maybe we reach more for material things?

  • The egalitarian worry that has always attended tracking students into “college prep” and “vocational ed” is overlaid with another: the fear that acquiring a specific skill set means that one’s life is determined. In college, by contrast, many students don’t learn anything of particular application; college is the ticket to an open future. Craftsmanship entails learning to do one thing really well, while the ideal of the new economy is to be able to learn new things, celebrating potential rather than achievement... most people take pride in being good at something specific,

    • We take pride and find meaning in doing something specific and committing to a particular cause, but we are taught to keep our options open, leading to more existentialism and less meaning :: Commitment

  • in areas of well-developed craft, technological developments typically preceded and gave rise to advances in scientific understanding, not vice versa. The steam engine is a good example. It was developed by mechanics who observed the relations between volume, pressure, and temperature. This at a time when theoretical scientists were tied to the caloric theory of heat, which later turned out to be a conceptual dead end.

    • So many companies emerge from building something, then seeing a problem that makes the creation of that thing more difficult, pursuing that as an opportunity (and inventing something new).

  • Measured in likelihood of screw-ups, the cost is not identical for all avenues of inquiry when deciding which hypothesis to pursue. For example, the fasteners holding the engine covers on 1970s-era Hondas are Phillips-head, and they are always stripped and corroded. Do you really want to check the condition of the starter clutch, if each of ten screws will need to be drilled out and extracted, risking damage to the engine case? Such impediments can cloud one’s thinking. Put more neutrally, the attractiveness of any hypothesis is determined in part by physical circumstances that have no logical connection to the diagnostic problem at hand, but a strong pragmatic bearing on it (kind of like origami). The factory service manuals tell you to be systematic in eliminating variables, but they never take such factors into account. So you have to develop your own decision tree for the particular circumstances. The problem is that at each node of this new tree, your own, unquantifiable risk aversion introduces ambiguity. There comes a point where you have to step back and get a larger gestalt.

    • Embodied, tacit knowledge when computing next steps, you end up somewhere different than the book.

  • Socially, being the proprietor of a bike shop in a small city gave me a feeling I never had before. I felt I had a place in society. Whereas “think tank” is an answer that, at best, buys you a few seconds when someone asks what you do, while you try to figure out what it is that you in fact do, with “motorcycle mechanic” I got immediate recognition. I bartered services with machinists and metal fabricators, which has a very different feel than transactions with money, and further increased my sense of social embeddedness. There were three restaurants with cooks whose bikes I had restored, where unless I deceive myself I was treated as a sage benefactor. I felt pride before my wife when we would go out to dinner and be given preferential treatment, or simply a hearty greeting. There were group rides, and bike night every Tuesday at a certain bar. Sometimes one or two people would be wearing my shop’s T-shirt. It felt good.

    • Community through local work. Maybe another reason we feel more disconnected today, in addition to declining institutions and extended families.

  • Given the intrinsic richness of manual work, cognitively, socially, and in its broader psychic appeal, the question becomes why it has suffered such a devaluation

  • the assembly line’s severing of the cognitive aspects of manual work from its physical execution. Such a partition of thinking from doing has bequeathed us the dichotomy of “white collar” versus “blue collar,” corresponding to mental versus manual.

    • Disembodied decision-making :(

  • One of Ford’s biographers wrote, “So great was labor’s distaste for the new machine system that toward the close of 1913 every time the company wanted to add 100 men to its factory personnel, it was necessary to hire 963.” This would seem to be a crucial moment in the history of political economy. Evidently, the new system provoked natural revulsion.

  • we are heading to a “post-industrial” economy in which everyone will deal only in abstractions. Yet trafficking in abstractions is not the same as thinking. White collar professions, too, are subject to routinization and degradation, proceeding by the same process as befell manual fabrication a hundred years ago: the cognitive elements of the job are appropriated from professionals, instantiated in a system or process, and then handed back to a new class of workers — clerks — who replace the professionals. If genuine knowledge work is not growing but actually shrinking, because it is coming to be concentrated in an ever-smaller elite, this has implications for the vocational advice that students ought to receive.

    • The assembly line applied to "knowledge work", potentially more at risk of Automation than physical work now

  • We are recalled to the basic antagonism of economic life: work is toilsome and necessarily serves someone else’s interests. That’s why you get paid. Thus chastened, we may ask the proper question: what is it that we really want for a young person when we give them vocational advice? The only creditable answer, it seems to me, is one that avoids utopianism while keeping an eye on the human good: work that engages the human capacities as fully as possible.

    • His description of "work worth doing" :: Purpose

  • Since manual work has been subject to routinization for over a century, the nonroutinized manual work that remains, outside the confines of the factory, would seem to be resistant to much further routinization.

  • the physical circumstances of the jobs performed by carpenters, plumbers, and auto mechanics vary too much for them to be executed by idiots; they require circumspection and adaptability. One feels like a man, not a cog in a machine. The trades are then a natural home for anyone who would live by his own powers, free not only of deadening abstraction, but also of the insidious hopes and rising insecurities that seem to be endemic in our current economic life.

    • See point above re: Automation and who it threatens in the 2020s and beyond

  • So what advice should one give to a young person? By all means, go to college. In fact, approach college in the spirit of craftsmanship, going deep into liberal arts and sciences. In the summers, learn a manual trade. You’re likely to be less damaged, and quite possibly better paid, as an independent tradesman than as a cubicle-dwelling tender of information systems. To heed such advice would require a certain contrarian streak, as it entails rejecting a life course mapped out by others as obligatory and inevitable.

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