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  • Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work
  • Charles Keller (bio)
Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. By Matthew B. Crawford. New York: Penguin, 2009. Pp. 246. $25.95.

Professor Matthew Crawford begins his well-written and thoughtful book by saying he "would like to speak up for an ideal that is timeless but finds little accommodation today: manual competence and the stance it entails toward the built, material world" (p. 2). This ideal he poses as a contrast to the tendency in engineering culture to "hide the works" of devices, thus resulting in "our increasing manual disengagement" (p. 1). In this book Crawford uses his experience with motorcycles to demonstrate the effects of skillful practice on the expert mechanic. These effects include feelings of autonomy, social identity, and engagement, as well as a new understanding of failure as an element of personal growth.

In the first chapter Crawford makes a case for the useful arts. Chapter 2 follows with a discussion of activity and thought in which he writes that postindustrial society has separated "thinking from doing" with a resulting degradation of manual work (p. 37). Not only does this separation result in activity that is cognitively shallow, it also reduces creativity and the familiarity required with both material and process.

In chapter 3, on "Mastery," Crawford explores the consequences of the emphasis on esthetics in the design of objects. This emphasis, he argues, often entails difficulty for the user, leaving us servants rather than masters of our devices: see, for example, the handle-less water fountain at which we enact a "futile rain dance." Mastery requires not only operational familiarity but judgment as well. Judging that a sluggish computer is suffering from an infecting virus, for example, is beyond the capability of many computer users. Masterful understanding of not only the user interface but the workings of our material environment is integral to a kind of personal autonomy and satisfaction that Crawford feels result from direct experience in production as well as use. With such an orientation, Crawford would be welcome in a group including such scholars as Jean Lave, Don Norman, John Singleton, the late Eugene Ferguson, David Pye, W Warner Wood, Walter Vincenti, Pierre Lemonnier, David Harper, and myself.

In the next two chapters Crawford describes the educational experience that has led him to appreciate manual competence and intuition. The process began as he was a teenager, working as an electrician and repairing/ rebuilding his own Volkswagen. This continued into later life and graduate school at the University of Chicago where Crawford repaired motorcycles in the basement of his Hyde Park apartment house.

In a subsequent chapter titled "Thinking as Doing," Crawford argues that the engagement of intuition and judgment in practice offers a holistic command during production and use. Contrasting practical activity with office tasks, he writes that the intuitive judgments of a skilled mechanic are [End Page 209] based on the "tacit integration of sensual knowledge" (p. 172). Knowing how is more important than knowing what. Even while propositional knowledge is more prestigious than "know-how" in much of society, tacit, intuitive knowledge is derived from rich and multisensual hand-and-mind experience of a particular person. "It can't be downloaded" (p. 162). Ultimately, tacit, holistic knowledge is superior to algorithms, Crawford argues, in discerning the interaction of parts in a complex system.

Following this discussion Crawford addresses the postindustrial shift to leisure as the primary source of "psychic nourishment." He argues that "good work is taken to be work that maximizes one's means for pursuing these other activities [leisure] where life becomes meaningful" (p. 181). The distinguishing criterion for leisure lies in the fact that the individual is presumably "fully engaged" in these activities. It is just this kind of engagement that accompanies skillful practical activity.

Crawford concludes by writing that the appeal of the trades is that they resist the recent tendency to decontextualization and remote control of activities. Training in hands-on endeavors results in failure more frequently perhaps than learning in the classrooms of higher education, and while that failure may be damaging to self-esteem, the process...