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While reading “The Great Reset” (see https://dianescholten.wordpress.com/2010/05/31/the-great-reset-the-book-review-i-promised/) I came across a reference to Matthew Crawford’s NYT bestseller (that I had never heard of) “Shop Class as Soulcraft”.  I just finished it over the weekend and despite a few quibbles on my part I highly recommend it.

Crawford, a U of C PhD kinda guy (read:  smart.  REALLY smart) has had a surprising life. Born in the wild 60s he was raised til the age of 14 in a commune.  That gave him the opportunity to learn electrician skills as a kid (really), skills that he used to help put himself through college.  College, Masters, PhD at of U of C.  What are you gonna do?  Get an Adult Job. Which means – Cubicle Land!

He actually did the Cubicle Land job after his Masters – and I’ve gotta believe that’s what drove him to further graduate studies (as in “there’s GOT to be a better way…”).

So he got a job at a Washington think tank and found that when he went to parties and people would ask “what do you do?” that he felt pretty vapid about it all – like “what value am I really adding?”

The book is a paean to the joys of manual labor, particularly (my one quibble) MANLY manual labor. It’s a ‘guy book’ to be sure.  Where I’ve always lost my butch credentials is in the arena of mechanical and spatial intelligence (take the Mensa test sometime – when you get to the part where they show you one house then a bank of four houses and say “Which of these four is the same as that one?” — yeah, RIGHT!  All of ’em! or None of ’em! Eesh!).

So his specific panacea to the ennui we often feel around the world of work is not one I’ll likely pursue.  When I was young and way poor and thus forced to “do it yourself” with home and car repairs my then partner would literally hide when I began a fix-it project.  Oh, it was SO not pretty!

So while I’ll not follow Matthew’s Path of True Redemption through Blue Collar Work, I DO agree with much of what he had to say, such as:

  • That there is psychic and soulful satisfaction in working with one’s hand – in materially changing the world
  • That when Henry Ford took the creativity out of work, COMPENSATION was needed
  • “Here the concept of wages as compensation achieves its fullest meaning, and its central place in modern economy. Changing attitudes towards consumption seemed to play a role.  A man whose needs are limited will find the least noxious livelihood and work in a subsistence mode.”
  • “The habituation of workers to the assembly line was thus perhaps made easier by another innovation of the early twentieth century:  consumer debt.”
  • “Somehow self-realization and freedom always entail buying something new, never conserving something old.” (this vis-à-vis marketing/advertising)
  • The best chapter, imho, is The Contradictions of the Cubicle – he really nails current corporate ‘culture’
  • Love this one:  “when the point of education becomes the production of credentials rather than the cultivation of knowledge, it forfeits the motive recognized by Aristotle: ‘All human beings by nature desire to know.’  Students become intellectually disengaged.”
  • He points out that manual labor engages all of a person – including their brain..
  • “College habituates young people to accept as normal course of things a mismatch between form and content, official representation and reality.”

I could probably blog on this book for a long time (much as I posted tidbits from Sarah Susanka’s “The Not So Big Life” for weeks on end on Facebook!) but suffice it to say that this is a very thought-provoking book and surely a timely one.  I mean – did you used to know the word “fungible”?  I sure didn’t and I have a reasonable vocabulary.  But now that most of our blue-collar assembly jobs and increasing number of our white-collar (analytical assembly) jobs are discovered to indeed be fungible (or, as Bruce Springsteen says “they say these jobs are going, boy, and they ain’t coming back – to my hometown…”) well, being a carpenter or a hairdresser or, like Matthew Crawford, a motorcycle mechanic, seems to be not such a dumb choice after all. 

And any of us who have had to eat our daily dose of corporate speak while enduring a tsunami of Powerpoint slides might long for the intellectual stimulation that tearing apart old motorcycles might provide.

I keep looking for the breadcrumbs.  In Doris Lessing’s apocalyptical novel “The Four Gated City”,  Martha Quest and her companions started seeing clues in the newspaper, in their daily lives and started mapping out the apocalypse bearing down upon them before others did.  I can see the Big Changes coming with a clue in this book, a hint in that blog, an Aha! in this conversation.  We’re headed to a new world, people.  I think we can help decide how we respond to the tidal wave of history washing us out to sea now, but I’m not so sure the shore we think we’re standing on is REALLY still here.

So learning to swim the new sea seems prudent.  And I think Matthew Crawford just may be one of the swim instructors.

What do YOU think?  Yes, YOU, the one who reads this but is shy, or busy, or (worst!) lazy. C’mon – put YOUR two cents in!  And really, read the book – it’s thought-provoking.

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