Wednesday, June 5, 2013

How To Work At Work

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part Sixteen
Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work

Matthew Crawford has a BS in physics and a PhD in political philosophy, and worked for a time in a major K Street think tank. But he gave it up in 2001 to become a self-employed motorcycle mechanic, the opposite of popular upward mobility. In his first book, Crawford explores how American society has denigrated the process of creating stuff. When did we decide producing goods we can hold was menial work?

Human beings consistently define ourselves by our work. We proudly ballyhoo job titles and recognitions. But very few of us make our living actually creating tangible goods. Office environments shuffle responsibilities, while factories have so spread the manufacturing process that no person or group really produces or improves anything. No wonder shade tree mechanics, home brewers, and other private creators have seen their numbers multiply.

Once, the process of making stuff and the process of making discoveries went hand in hand. But today’s economic structure separates thinking from doing, alienating value creators from goods producers. Crawford writes: “the tradesman must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one's failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away. His well-founded pride is far from the gratuitous 'self-esteem' that educators would impart to students, as though my magic.”

As a political philosopher, Crawford applies years of study and an impressive body of knowledge. He shows particular fondness for Aristotle and Heidegger, unsurprisingly, since both expounded earthy philosophies of “being” in the world. But as a mechanic, he has little patience for windy jargon, and demonstrates his points in anecdotes often laced with coarse, vulgar outbursts. As philosopher, Crawford writes for everyday readers, not tenured specialists with opaque dialects.

This dual career track makes Crawford essentially bilingual. If you don’t understand epic discursions on transcendent philosophic truths, wait a few pages; he’ll translate himself in terms of dismantling an obsolete Japanese intake manifold. He helpfully bolsters his machine shop tales with careful illustrations for overeducated yawps (like me) who little understand mechanical concepts. Crawford writes half memoir and half manifesto, tying high-minded truths to practical comprehension.

Late corporate capitalism has moved power over common manufacturing out of workers’ hands. Managers now not only make important decisions, they have exclusive rein on core knowledge. Engineers and designers know how stuff works, while workers put stuff together, a gulf that would have been unthinkable a few generations ago. It’s a gulf that Crawford himself bridged through his own business, though it remains instrumental in today’s acquisitive economy.

The process of reducing meaningful work to repetitive processes, perfected in heavy industry a century ago, has not stopped at the factory door. Crawford unpacks his own sojourn in a white-collar sweatshop, which is increasingly becoming the common destination for college graduates entering the workforce. Far from opening doors of social and economic mobility, education has become a path into new forms of penury—as I’ve learned all too well.

This arc even offers an explanation for the rise in adjunct college instruction. Where once universities prized their responsibility for creating new knowledge, many, especially public universities, have adopted the essential mentality of a tool-and-die shop. Jeffrey Selingo, in one of his more unguarded moments, even refers to colleges as manufacturers, and students as raw materials. Independent professors conducting self-directed research make lousy factory drones.

The problem Crawford describes started out in the workplace, but has become ubiquitous elsewhere. Public high schools have long channeled students into “career” and “college” tracks (Mike Rose has written eloquently on this Manichaean split). But many school districts have phased out woodshop, auto mechanics, and other costly classes. Too many youth will have no opportunity to discover hands-on adult roles until they venture into the workplace.

Not that it matters much. Fewer people know how to use and maintain the stuff they own—how to change their oil, or refurbish their houses, or grow their food. Pop the hood on many European cars, and you’ll find the engine encased in a shell; you physically cannot change your oil. Replace the battery on your own iPhone, and you automatically void the warranty. You aren’t supposed to understand.

American alienation from the work we do has become pandemic, though few understand why we feel this way. The problem seems very vast and abstract, yet somehow entirely earthy. As someone who has studied the issue from both directions, Crawford has a unique ability to put a name on this widespread feeling. His words feel familiar because we want to work, even when we can’t.

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