In the early sixties, before the “everybody-go-to-college movement” gained traction, I attempted to build a small oak table for my final grade in Junior High shop class. Shop was mandatory for all of us, but many of what we then considered “hoods” were in it for life. My table was a disaster-––earning my only “needs improvement” grade (real grades were suspect at this level back then)––and it convinced me that a belt full of hammers, saws, screwdrivers, and tape measures was not in my future.
Matthew B. Crawford’s first book, “Shop Class as Soulcraft”, suggests that was perhaps the beginning of the end, not only for my own handyman self-confidence, but also for any hope of a truly self-reliant, engaged, and thinking population.
Crawford has the credentials to make the case, both in academia, where he earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Chicago, and on the street, where he now repairs old motorcycles and busts his shins kick-starting them. He cut his mechanic’s teeth fixing up his ’63 VW bug and his intellectual teeth at a Washington think tank.
We owe him a listen when he advises young people: “…if the thought of four more years sitting in a classroom makes your skin crawl, the good news is that you don’t have to go through the motions and jump through the hoops for the sake of making a decent living. Even if you do go to college, learn a trade in the summers. You’re less likely to be damaged, and quite possibly better paid, as an independent tradesman than as a cubicle-dwelling tender of information systems or a low-level ‘creative.’”
Shades of Zen
With a somewhat more erudite manner than Robert Pirsig in his classic 1974 “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, Crawford explores our path from a hard use, hands-on relationship with our belongings to the present distant, discard relationship. Drawing on the simple maintenance of an internal combustion engine he points out:
How far we have come from the hand oiling of early motorcycles is indicated by the fact that some of the current Mercedes models do not even have a dipstick…There are now layers of collectivized, absentee interest in your motor’s oil level, and no single person is responsible for it. If we understand this under the rubric of “globalization,” we see that the tentacles of that wondrous animal reach down into things that were once unambiguously our own: the amount of oil in a man’s crankcase.
Crawford doesn’t shy from dropping a few names like Aristotle, Hannah Arendt, and even Iris Murdoch, but the polemics in Shop Class are underscored with some good down home metal talk. He is at heart a gearhead who eschews the softness of his parents’ communal bucolic world.
Wood was for hippies, and hippies in various guises ruled the world. The wood whisperer with his hand planes, his curly maple, and his workshop on Walden Pond is a stock alter ego of gentlefolk everywhere, and I wanted none of it. A grade 10.9 nylock nut, on the other hand, is appreciated only after a certain initiation, one that tends away from the mysticism of the official counterculture. It is a strictly utilitarian mentality bred in the crucible of motor sports, where every component is stressed up to and beyond its limit.
Punching up the horsepower on his VW takes some serious iron: “a crank with a 69 mm stroke, forged pistons to fit an 87 mm bore, a temperamental but voluptuous double-barrel Italian carburetor capable of full-throated arias, a free flow exhaust, a German centrifugal advance distributor, a remote oil cooler and full-flow filter, a lightened flywheel, and a heavy clutch.”
No Help Desk Here
The fun, then, of “Shop Class as Soulcraft” is in the details of touching and rebuilding machines. Unlike, for example, a Linksys router that goes south frequently and is fixed by a reboot or replacement, motorcycles and cars need thinking and analysis to make them work right and keep working. “The mechanical arts have a special significance for our time because they cultivate not creativity, but the less glamorous virtue of attentiveness. Things need fixing and tending no less than creating.”
Listening to Crawford’s curses as he struggles to remove a valve cover on a Japanese bike, we get some comfort in his frustration:
In an effort to save time in assembling and disassembling things with an inscrutable Oriental fit to them, I used to try to hypnotize myself into a Zen-like state of resignation at the outset. It doesn’t work, not for this Grasshopper. I have my own process, as they say. I call it the motherfucker process.
Lord knows I was there once with my pieces of oak, although with a more restrained tongue.
Crawford’s first book is a pleasure exactly because he mostly doesn’t take himself too seriously. Perhaps its point is a bit heavy, but his story is hardly heavy-handed. There is something to be said for making time to take our stuff apart when it breaks, fix it, and put it back together better than it was.
Surely this is more fulfilling than calling some help desk across the world or an on-line chat with the Geek Squad. As Crawford concludes, “If thinking is bound up with action, then the task of getting an adequate grasp on the world, intellectually, depends on our doing stuff in it.”
We would do well, perhaps, to bring back the shop class – for us adults too.