Looking for some light summer reading, I went to the bookshelf and pulled out an old underlined copy of Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I was a third of the way way through when this showed up on the literary horizon. It looks like I may have a lighter pull for my follow up.
"Stumped by a starter motor that wouldn't work, he eventually met a mechanic named Fred Cousins, who ran a few tests before quickly diagnosing the problem. "Then Fred gave me a succinct dissertation on the peculiar metallurgy of these Honda starter-motor bushings of the mid-70s," Crawford writes in his newly published book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work (Penguin Press, 2009).
In his book Crawford argues for a fresh view of skilled labor, especially that of the traditional trades. Go ahead, he's saying: Get your hands dirty. Own your work.
His book mixes descriptions of the pleasures and challenges of diagnosing faulty oil seals and rebuilding engines with philosophical views of work — he draws upon Aristotle, Martin Heidegger, and Hannah Arendt, among others — and economic analyses for the decline of skilled labor. He laments in particular the recent demise of high-school shop classes, which gave many young men their first manual skills. (Crawford points out that his arguments apply equally to women and says he hopes one day to work on a 1960 Volkswagen bug with his two young daughters.)
Skilled manual labor is far more cognitive than people realize, Crawford argues, and deserves more respect. That is especially true during tough economic times, when an independent tradesperson can make a decent and dignified living, and — this is important — can't be outsourced. (You can't get your car fixed in China.) "The question of what a good job looks like — of what sort of work is both secure and worthy of being honored — is more open now than it has been for a long time," he writes.
Crawford believes that Americans, in their frenzy to send every kid to college in pursuit of information-age job skills, have lost something valuable. "My sense is that some kids are getting hustled off to college when they'd rather be learning to build things or fix things, and that includes kids who are very smart," he says in an interview.