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Shop Class as "Soulcraft"


In our rush to prepare students for the "knowledge" economy, are we ignoring the tangible and intangible benefits of providing them with basic, manual skills? That question is at the heart of a new book by Matt Crawford, "Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work," which has appeared on the bestseller list. The author is the subject of a good profile in the Washington Post.

Crawford, 43, is the former executive director of the George C. Marshall Institute, and he holds a doctorate in political philosophy from the University of Chicago. Today, in addition to writing, he runs a garage in Richmond. He sees a general turn away from the cultivation of manual skills in American society, and in our schools, as embodied by the replacement of shop classes with computer labs and the general de-emphasis on hands-on know-how, the article explains.

"There's this false dichotomy out there between intellectual work and manual work," he tells the Post. Students and adults today want to be "knowledge workers," Crawford says. As the article notes, Crawford is not in any way calling for an abandonment these knowledge-based pursuits, but simply arguing for preserving a society in which people can perform basic tasks under the hood, as well as at the computer terminal.

Crawford's book seems to be resonating among at least one segment of the American population, judging by book sales. Do his arguments have any relevance for schools and the career-and-technical education classes found in U.S. high schools?


I think Crawford is doing more than "simply arguing for preserving a society in which people can perform basic tasks under the hood." He is suggesting that much of the work undertaken by those in modern society is not work which is enriching for the soul because is not cognitively rich. The real work of thinking has been taken from the worker and delegated to the manager, who him or herself may answer to another level of management.

Some additional thoughts prompted by my reading of Soulcraft ....

Perhaps the problem of much of education is that we are bent on preparing students for the “real world” and it is this world (at least large portions of it) which Crawford suggests do not provide meaningful work. To what extent do our biases as those who have likely spent the majority of our time on the college and office prep track affect the direction in which we point students? How can we (within the constraints of our particular situtations) practice teaching and learning that engages both minds and bodies in meaningful work? How do we encourage students to cultivate knowledge, not credentials? Are we willing to do this even if it means our students will be less “successful” in the eyes of many? Has society gone too far down the path of an assembly line and managerial mentality to make meaningful work a viable option for many of our students?

You can read more here- http://inforgood.wordpress.com/2009/06/24/soulcraft/

I just wrote about this book and his ideas in a book I am writing about teaching English. I will just post the bit I wrote:

Two authors—Matthew Crawford and Mike Rose––question the direction and value of all this change toward Pink’s Conceptual Age. While conventional wisdom holds that everyone in the future will need a college degree, Crawford (2009) attacks this “dichotomy of mental versus manual [work],” adamantly resisting the assumption that “all blue-collar work is as mindless as assembly line work, and second, that white-collar work is still recognizably mental in character” (31). And Rose (2005) seconds Crawford, talking about how the “current distinction between an ‘old work order’ and a ‘new work order” [rhetorically] renders twentieth-century industrial workers as cognitively substandard” (209). In his study of literacy in the workplace, Rose reveals a complex “occupational landscape” rich in “cognitive processes” that require workers to use a range of symbol systems, modes of expression, written and oral communication, cognitive collaboration, notetaking and visual representation in the course of the ongoing learning that most experience over time due to the rapidly evolving workplace (Rose 2005).
The intelligence and dignity inherent in crafts and the trades are obvious and personal to me: I saw these qualities every day in my uncles, parents of my childhood friends, and my own father, who worked in the printing industry for thirty-eight years in nearly every capacity as he rose to management. As was Mike Rose, I was the first to graduate from college in my family, an experience which helped me to understand how much intelligence my uncles had about people, materials, business, and making or fixing things. Yet even as I understand the truth in Rose’s findings and appreciate Crawford’s certainty that his work as a mechanic cannot be denied him because it “cannot be delivered through a wire” (33), I also see these same twenty-first century literacies, the survival skills described by Wagner, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and the NCEE increasingly at play in the small shops where people do the work Rose and Crawford honor with their words. Joe’s Ice Cream, three doors down and serving its award-winning ice cream since my wife’s mother was a child, maintains a lively website and encourages people to post reviews on Yelp! American Cyclery, the oldest shop in San Francisco, a cool old place with wooden floors and vintage bikes hanging on the walls, maintains blogs, and tweets about upcoming events. My point? Everyone, even the artisanal baker who markets his bread online and ships through FedEx while the bread is still warm, requires the survival skills Wagner describes. When my father, who dropped out of high school at fifteen, got hired by the printing factory, he had neither experience nor skills, but did possess a willingness to learn; by the time he retired thirty-eight years later, people applying for entry-level positions needed degrees in graphic arts and advanced-level computer skills. Oh, and why was my father still there to run that division? Because he was the only one who realized that if he didn’t acquire these digital literacies he would end up on the scrap heap like all his other buddies did.

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