Shop Class as Soulcraft

Just this weekend, Sarah (the youngest Kenney) chose to figure out how the DVD player in my office works. She chose option 23: Opening the disc tray and leaning on it. This successfully knocked it off track, and while I kissed my daughter repeatedly for doing so, Mrs. Kenney went straight to work.

Determined not to plunk $100 on a new DVD player, we cracked the top open and discovered the tray to be slightly off track. Repaired, and probably on it’s 80th showing of “The King and I” the DVD player lives to see another series of years, even if Sarah continues to make a beeline for the machine whenever the opportunity presents itself.

The lesson? Most folks would have thrown that DVD player out. It was jammed, it couldn’t be fixed, it might have taken hours, etc. Mrs. Kenney has a fairly insatiable appetite for figuring out how things work and repairing them… and I just happen figure things can be fixed. Just because there’s a cover on there doesn’t mean it operates by magic, after all. It’s a machine with moveable parts! If someone put it together, someone can ideally see if the fix is doable, right?

I’ve always wanted to write a book touching on such matters, but Richmond shop owner and philosopher Matthew Crawford beat me to the punch with Shop Class as Soulcraft, which was an extension of a New Atlantis article written in 2006 proclaiming the virtues of working with ones hands. If you haven’t read his outstanding book yet, buy it today. It’s a relatively quick read, and just the sort of remedy a philosopher/mechanic could offer. From the review on Amazon:

Shop Class as Soulcraft brings alive an experience that was once quite common, but now seems to be receding from society-the experience of making and fixing things with our hands. Those of us who sit in an office often feel a lack of connection to the material world, a sense of loss, and find it difficult to say exactly what we do all day. For anyone who felt hustled off to college, then to the cubicle, against their own inclinations and natural bents, Shop Class as Soulcraft seeks to restore the honor of the manual trades as a life worth choosing.

Crawford does much more than this — he offers a path, away from the cycle of scalable enterprise and towards a more self-fulfilling and self-reliant ideal. Trades are to be cherished because they offer the apprentice the experience of the master in a way not often (if at all) communicated in a modern classroom. For example, I would love to know how many electricians who start as apprentices go on to become self-employed and successful. Although I’m sure they get some extra training for contractors going out on their own (click here to learn about electrician training), their experience as an apprentice and the way they learn will stand them in good stead for their future. Modern education teaches us what to think, not how to think. In trades, results matter; in cubicle hell, feelings and teamwork matter. Most of all, as we’ve moved away from becoming craftsman and mere automatons along an assembly line, we’ve not only lost a bit of ourselves in the process, we’ve turned ourselves into creatures who seek process over results. Crawford rejects the dumbed-down white collar workplace for what it is, and praises the more realistic trades many of us have forgotten.

Go read this book. I would have really liked to see Crawford get into a bit of Aristotle’s idea of self-sufficiency (autarkestatos?), but I think he stops the book short on purpose. It’s awful nice to see him leave all the tools on the table and practically beg the reader to follow through with his logic. You’d expect no less from a master teaching an apprentice.

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