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The New York Times Magazine ran an interesting piece a few weeks back by Matthew B. Crawford. An adaptation of his recently released book "Shop Class as Soulcraft," the essay considers whether certain jobs are overvalued by society, though the thought processes required can be less complex and less rational than that required by under valued jobs.
Crawford might well be the best educated motorcycle mechanic in the country. He holds PhD in Political Philosophy from the University of Chicago, but after a post doctoral fellowship and a stint as the executive director of a Washington, D.C. policy group, he realized simpler things made him happier.
He now owns a motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, Virginia where he finds satisfaction puzzling through repairs of "Japanese and European motorcycles, mostly older bikes with some 'vintage' cachet that makes people willing to spend money on them."
Academic pursuits have not been abandoned completely by Crawford, who is a fellow at the University of Virginia??s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. In fact, the bridging of his two pursuits goes to the root of his well-received book and essay.
High-school shop-class programs were widely dismantled in the 1990s as educators prepared students to become "knowledge workers." The imperative of the last 20 years to round up every warm body and send it to college, then to the cubicle, was tied to a vision of the future in which we somehow take leave of material reality and glide about in a pure information economy. This has not come to pass. To begin with, such work often feels more enervating than gliding. More fundamentally, now as ever, somebody has to actually do things: fix our cars, unclog our toilets, build our houses.
When we praise people who do work that is straightforwardly useful, the praise often betrays an assumption that they had no other options. We idealize them as the salt of the earth and emphasize the sacrifice for others their work may entail. Such sacrifice does indeed occur--the hazards faced by a lineman restoring power during a storm come to mind. But what if such work answers as well to a basic human need of the one who does it? I take this to be the suggestion of Marge Piercy??s poem "To Be of Use," which concludes with the lines "the pitcher longs for water to carry/and a person for work that is real." Beneath our gratitude for the lineman may rest envy.
It's possible that Crawford's book may be a bit involved for most casual readers--parts of his NYTimes Magazine piece suggests that might be so--but Francis Fukuyama's review of the book in the Times boils it down very well. And Crawford's argument--that the ability to use skill and problem solving to complete physical tasks rather than processing thoughts--is one that carpenters will appreciate and welcome.