shop class as soulcraft

(matthew b. crawford)

a few years ago i learned there were no meaningful shop class options available in the local high school. the wood shop available today is sad and pathetic compared to the shop class i had in a middle-class midwestern suburb in the late 1980s. gen-X is probably the last generation to have shop class.

there’s a lot swimming around the core “philosophy” in this book. a good chunk of it meta. this operates at the national level:

  • as a country we’ve exported our manufacturing expertise. we’re going to really struggle to build ASIC manufacturing facilities in this country. the machines that do this and the dedication to solving the very hard engineering, construction and process problems doesn’t seem to be a thing america does much of anymore.
  • there’s a shortage of people to build the housing that we desperately need in many cities. as a complement; have you seen what plumbers get paid these days? take that management consultant about to be replaced by AI. there’s a shortage of skilled labor to (re-)build the infrastructure that we need to evolve our energy consumption. someone’s gotta build the power transmission lines to feed those data centers full of GPUs powering our new AI overlords.
  • we’ve created some really awkward stratification around blue collar work. this is not helping with our polarization problems.
  • etc., etc., etc.

this is clearly a book by a philosopher; complete with heidegger quotes. but, he does a nice job of capturing some of the humanity and experience associated with working with your hands. it’s become an article of faith/assumption that within the tech industry when you’ve reached the limits of your tolerance for corporate bullshit you’ll tap out, call in rich, and go do something where you can actually see the results of your work. engage in the labor of making something, turn it around in your hands, eat it, or appreciate that your energies were expended in the creation of some thing.

the dissection of corporate culture and the critiques of cubicle culture are very well placed. if anything this reflects the pre-AI/bullshit work, cynicism that we have lived in the intervening 15 years. faux empowerment, the larger vision, the “culture” alignment. this is kind of nicely explored in the notion of a crew vs. the corporate “team” that we all participate in. i will have to work hard at not adopting a cynical take on team after having read this.

there’s a dollop of dumb in here as well. while in the midst of (deservedly) flaming cubicle culture he mythologizes construction culture as some sort of egalitarian ideal. paraphrasing loosely; “your work is the objective means by which you will be measured and achieve respect amongst your peers, you’ll be able to tell dirty jokes within the company of the crew, therein lies some sort of workers panacea.” this chapter seemed to land a little sloppily. perhaps more appropriately, it hasn’t aged well. it kind of blithely sets aside the fact that there are plenty of trades/local-labor jobs that have been racially exclusionary and pretty typically, dominantly male. his male gen-X is showing. i’ve been guilty of this personally, it’s sloppy thinking and it’s something to work on.

that aside - there’s some admirable intellectual struggle in the last chapter wherein he explores the need for social solidarity and the development of self-reliance. this is one of the more interesting tensions that i think we all either directly understand or intuit. where does personal responsibility kick in and what are our responsibilities to our fellow citizens? there’s no clear resolution here, but i respect the struggle.

the germ of this book seems to be pre-iphone. in the intervening 14 years since the book came out i’m impressed by how relevant it seems to be and how we seem to be aching for more doing.

in summary - well worth the read. likely worth a re-read at some point.


  • location: Minneapolis, MN
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