Book Review: “Shop Class as Soulcraft” by Matthew Crawford

Matthew Crawford is a practicing motorcycle mechanic out of Richmond,Virginia. He’s also an excellent writer who holds a philosophy degree from the prestigious University of Chicago. This unusual trifecta informs “Shop Class as Soulcraft: an Inquiry Into the Value of Work.” Anyone who’s changed their oil or timed a distributor (remember them?) will appreciate the result.

Disregard the slightly woo-woo title. This is no Zen and the Art of the Motorcycle, which was a prissy piece of pretentious, barely readable hokum. [One reviewer damned my book The Gold-Plated Porsche with faint praise by asserting that it was better than Zen and the Art . . .”] Crawford’s book is a querulous examination of how and why we’ve given up our appreciation for the skills of the craftsperson—-or even the simple integrity of the committed do-it-yourselfer. In the process, we’ve become a culture of “change ‘er out, not worth troubleshootin’ it” techs.

Crawford traces the shift to our collective belief in the mantra “Time Is Money.” As a consequence, some of our ’57 Chevys and ’71 240Zs are worth more than a used F430—if you multiply hours times the going hourly day-job rate of some of the enthusiasts who lovingly restore and maintain them. There are other ramifications . . .

My daughter recently became a San Francisco homeowner. She asked me if she should buy an extended warranty on her new washer and dryer. After explaining the transaction’s super-scam aspect, I told her that the appliances are in fact incredibly simple machines. They can be stripped naked by the removal of a few sheetmetal screws, exposing a motor, belt and drum (or a motor, pump and hoses). She could rectify most problem using internet how-to sites plus the substantial toolkit I had assembled for her Manhattan-apartment days.

Crawford would approve. More to the point, he’d agree that the mini-education thus attained would stand my daughter in good stead. Both practically and philosophically.

Crawford charts the changes that I’ve seen first hand. Back in the 1950s, a mechanical education was a standard part of the average high school curriculum. As a child of the FDR era, I “took shop.” To this day, I remember the specific differences between crosscut and rip saws (Lesson One, I believe).

Sometime around 1990, American educators decided we’d moved beyond such skills, into the Information Age. High schools across the land dumped their industrial-quality lathes, drill presses, bandsaws and welding rigs onto the used market. (You can still find them on eBay.) And if a student were “retarded” enough to need shop class, he could always go to the local BOCES and become a butt-crack plumber.

The sea change created a vast sea of cubicle Dilberts—people doing things they neither care about nor understand. They follow simple patterns to accomplish their jobs. Crawford points out that the transition started long before shop class went the way of the hula hoop.

According to popular mythology, Henry Ford paid his workers twice as much as they’d otherwise have earned to make them affluent enough to buy Model Ts. In fact, when Ford developed the assembly line—each worker turning one bolt or fastening one bracket all day long—his former bicycle and carriage craftsmen quit in droves. Overpaying them was the only way Ford could secure enough workers willing to withstand the endless, mindless, repetitive, monotony. The creation of the middle class, and their accession to Model T ownership, was an unintended consequence.

Fast forward to 1969. If you’d taken your Porsche to the dealer with an infuriating cold-start problem, a mechanic who’d made a camshaft from a steel billet with a hand file to satisfy his apprenticeship would have quickly sorted it out. And now? Your Porsche is serviced by a “technician” who relies on the computerized OBD fault code that he (or she) finds on a list.

As Crawford correctly points out, the Porsche “specialist” is reasonably effective, but he lacks a deep understanding of the machine under his care. He’s like the Information Age student who has learned how to find a square root on their calculator—but doesn’t know what a square root signifies. A single botched keystroke can turn the root of 36 into 18 rather than six, and they won’t have the knowledge or experience to say, “No, that can’t be right.” In the same way, the Porsche tech may not tumble to the fact that if the sparkplugs are carbon black, maybe the engine is running rich—-even though the fault code “insists” on lean.

If you skip some of Crawford’s heady philosophy, “Shop Class as Soulcraft” reassures mechanically adept readers that working on your car imports treasure beyond measure. Still, as the old Zen says, the map is not territory.

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