Zen and the art of shop class

Richard Handler goes under the hood of Matthew Crawford's book, Shop Class: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, and finds an argument in support of the trades.

Put your iPod (and phone) aside. Set down your laptop. Look up from your BlackBerry. Matthew B. Crawford (through the guise of yours truly) wants to ask you a question.

How many of you, the crème de la crème of readers, ever attended the lowly course of instruction called shop class?

Matthew Crawford seeks to bring new respect to "the trades". (iStock)

It's a question Crawford would undoubtedly want to ask those students trooping back to school, loaded with mounds of electronic gear. Can they wield a hammer? Can they make a chair?

Of course, their response would be: Why would that matter? We all must be glorious knowledge workers. To heck with the hammer-and-nails world.

Matthew Crawford operates a small motorcycle repair business. But he also has a PhD in philosophy and studied physics as an undergraduate. Today, he is better known as the author of Shop Class: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work.

It can also be seen as an inquiry into humility and the value of satisfaction.

Soul of a machine

Now, don't confuse Shop Class with Robert Pirsig's classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Pirsig's book was a lyrical, philosophical novel. Crawford's account is pretty straightforward.

But both authors share certain similarities such as a fondness for old bikes and motorcycle riding, a love of using one's hands and a patient intelligence that allows them to fix things such as motorcycle engines and other machines.

Of course, our world has changed even more since 1974, when Pirsig's book was published. Crawford's message is that in the interim the world of technology has become even more mysterious and that too much of the guts of machines are hidden from view.

When you open the hood of a certain German car, for instance, another hood lies underneath. It's almost as if the makers don't want to offend us, he says, by showing us how these machines work.

The result is that we live in a world where we learn to push buttons. When things don't work, many of us panic and try to get help immediately.

It's been years since I took a lamp into a small appliance shop (are they even around anymore?). If your toaster doesn't work, we are taught that it's not worth the time and cost to fix it. Just throw it out.

Baffled by technology

Even those of us who have studied science and think we know some theory, live in a world run by mysterious forces that we can't do much about. We 21st-century folk are truly baffled by the technology in front of us.

Now Crawford is not some old-time scold. Indeed, he's a youthful charmer. You can see in this video interview or hear him in an interview on CBC Radio's Q.

When our toasters break, we're taught to throw them out. No use in trying to fix anything. (iStock)

He grew up in a commune in California with educated, hippy parents who moved often. So he had to learn how to fix things and rewire houses.

Part of Crawford's intent in Shop Class is to re-establish the value of the "trades."

This is an old story. Years ago, I remember one of my first assignments as a researcher on a TV newsmagazine was to find out why Canada was in constant need of tradesmen.

We had to import them, even when unemployment was high. The story hasn't changed much over the decades.

The usual explanation for this is that North American parents see white-collar work as a step up from the dirty factory jobs of their parents' era. It became sign of upper mobility and job security to work in an office.

No more. Office jobs are being shifted offshore, just as many factory jobs are. But you can't send your car to be fixed in India or China. And your plumber earns $80 an hour, just to peer under your sink.

Assembly line clerking

Crawford tells us he started thinking about this book when he discovered that many U.S. high schools had abandoned shop class in favour of computers. The old tools, once handled by generations of students, were being stored in warehouses.

Crawford's criticisms are both practical and philosophical. On the practical level, white-collar work is not only subject to unemployment. It is often dull and routine, assembly line clerkships.

Today's office workers, says Crawford, aren't necessarily involved in turning out any real product. And they often work in teams, which can make an individual's contribution more ambiguous.

Because of that, office managers must appeal to vague corporate promptings for meaning and to shore up worker morale.

On the other hand, Crawford asserts, shop work is cognitively challenging.

The physical presence of a real thing, such as an engine, presents a world of puzzle and problems, all of them different.

The humility of real craftwork

Real mechanics show respect for the intractable functioning of the physical world. Each adjustment of the screw can have a different effect.

What's more, says Crawford, real craftwork makes you downright humble.

Pirsig, by the way, says the same thing: great mechanics are humble because they know they can be defeated by the vagaries of machinery.

Both Pirsig and Crawford tell stories about lousy mechanics who are both thoughtless and careless. These are the people who break things without knowing it (so your car breaks down when it leaves their shop).

Crawford also acknowledges that his knowledge of the craftwork in the digital age is limited. When confronted with a software programmer who argues that he, in fact, produces real, creative things such as computer code, Crawford, the humble mechanic, concedes the point. 

Still, Crawford, the intellectual, has another philosophic dimension in his tribute to shop work. What's really behind his love of craft is that it fosters "individual agency."

In other words, people who exercise a good measure of control over what they do in their working lives.

In that sense, he's updating (and challenging) the old Marxist critique that workers are alienated from their work.

But Crawford is hardly a revolutionary. He knows that finding places for people to exercise this "agency" is not easy. It is like looking for a crack in our largely automated world, where you can burrow in and find some autonomy.

I report all this as a man who suffers from being manually challenged. A world that can bend gracefully to a hammer or plane is one that I have never entered. All I have is a certain facility to make sentences and radio.

Though digital, they are real things, I would argue. And just as tricky to put together or repair. But still, I can't fix a leaky kitchen faucet.