Ammar Mian

Shop Class as Soulcraft - Matthew Crawford

A Brief Case for the Useful Arts

Without the opportunity to learn through the hands, the world remains abstract and distant and the passions for learning will not be engaged (p 11)

Boasting is what a boy does, because he has no real effect on the world. But the tradesman must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away. His well-founded pride is far from the gratuitous “self esteem” that educators would impart to students, as though by magic (p 15)

Plato makes a distinction between technical skill and rhetoric on the grounds that rhetoric “has no account to give of the real nature of things, and so cannot tell the cause of any of them.” The craftsman’s habitual deference is not toward the New, but toward the objective standards of his craft (p 18)

From its earliest practice, craft knowledge has entailed knowledge of the “ways” of one’s materials -- that is, knowledge of their nature, acquired through disciplined perception. At the beginning of the Western tradition, sophia (wisdom) meant “skill” for Homer: the technical skill of a carpenter, for example (p 21)

Those who dwell in intimate association with nature and its phenomena are more able to lay down principles such as to admit of a wide and coherent development; while those whom devotion to abstract discussions has rendered unobservant of facts are too ready to dogmatize on the basis of a few observations (p 23)

Spiritualized, symbolic modes of craft practice and craft consumption represent a compensation for, and therefore an accommodation to, new modes of routinized, bureaucratic work (p 29)

The critical divide in the future may instead be between those types of work that are easily deliverable through a wire with little or no diminution in quality and those that are not. And this unconventional divide does not correspond well to traditional distinctions between jobs that require high levels of education and jobs that do not (p 33)

The Separation of Thinking from Doing

The tenets of scientific management were given their first and frankest articulation by Frederick Winslow Taylor, whose Principles of Scientific Management was hugely influential in the early decades of the twentieth century. According to Taylor, “All possible brain work should be removed from the shop and centered in the planning or laying-out department.” The concern is with labor cost. Once the cognitive aspects of the job are located in a separate management class (or in a process that requires no ongoing judgment or deliberation) skilled workers can be replaced with unskilled workers at a lower rate of pay (p 38, 39)

The competitive labor-cost advantage now held by the more modern firm, which has aggressively separated planning from execution, compels the whole industry to follow the same route, and entire skilled trades disappear. Thus craft knowledge dies out, or rather gets instantiated in a different form, as process engineering knowledge (p 40)

The habituation of workers to the assembly line was perhaps made easier by another innovation of the early twentieth century: consumer debt. As Jackson Lears has argued, through the installment plan previously unthinkable acquisitions became thinkable, and more than thinkable: it became normal to carry debt (p 43)

If genuine knowledge work is not growing but actually shrinking, because it is coming to be concentrated in an ever-smaller elite, this has implications for the vocational advice that students ought to receive. If they want to use their brains at work, and aren’t destined to make it into the star chamber, they should be helped to find work that somehow thwarts the Taylorist logic, and is therefore safe from it (p 44)

Based on hundreds of hours of interviews with corporate managers, Robert Jackall concludes that one of the principles of contemporary management is to “push details down and pull credit up.” That is, avoid making decisions, because they could damage your career, but then spin cover stories after the fact that interpret positive outcomes to your credit (p 49)

The trades are a natural home for anyone who would live by his own powers, free not only of deadening abstraction but also of the insidious hopes and rising insecurities that seem to be endemic in our current economic life (p 53)

To Be Master of One’s Own Stuff

There seems to be an ideology of freedom at the heart of consumerist material culture; a promise to disburden us of mental bodily involvement with our own stuff so we can pursue ends we have freely chosen. Yet this disburdening gives us fewer occasions to experience direct responsibility. I believe the appeal of freedomism, as a marketing hook, is due to the fact it nonetheless captures something true. It points to a paradox in our experience of agency: to be master of your own stuff entails also being mastered by it (p 56)

The musician’s power of expression is founded upon a prior obedience; her musical agency is built up from an ongoing submission. To what? To her teacher perhaps, but this is incidental rather than primary -- there is such thing as a self-taught musician. Her obedience rather is to the mechanical realities of her instrument, which in turn answer to certain natural necessities of music that can be expressed mathematically (p 64)

But what if we are inherently instrumental, or pragmatically oriented, all the way down, and the use of tools is really fundamental to the way human beings inhabit the world? We have come to live in a world that precisely does not elicit our instrumentality, the embodied kind that is original to us. We have too few occasions to do anything, because of a certain predetermination of things from afar (p 68)

The Education of a Gearhead

Fixing things, whether cars or human bodies, is very different from building things from scratch. The mechanic and the doctor deal with failure every day, even if they are expert, whereas the builder does not. This is because the things they fix are not of their own making, and are therefore never known in a comprehensive or absolute way (p 81)

Getting it right demands that you be attentive in the way of a conversation rather than assertive in the way of a demonstration. I believe the mechanical arts have a special significance for our time because they cultivate not creativity, but the less glamorous virtue of attentiveness. Things need fixing and tending no less than creating (p 82)

The mechanics behind the counter at any old-school speed shop seem to adopt a more ambivalent stance, in which the desire to sell is counterpoised with haughty professionalism (p 86)

The mechanic has to internalize the well working of the motorcycle as an object of passionate concern. The truth does not reveal itself to idle spectators (p 98)

There seems to be a vicious circle in which degraded work plays a pedagogical role, forming workers into material that is ill suited for anything but the overdetermined world of carless labor (p 101)

The Further Education of a Gearhead: from Amateur to Professional

Some mechanics seem to not have enough concern for the motorcycle. I have suggested this moral failure tends to coincide with the cognitive failure of getting anchored in snap diagnostic judgments, and not being sufficiently attentive to the bike (p 114)

I felt compelled to get to the bottom of things, to gape them open and clean them out. But this lust for thoroughness is at odds with the world of human concerns in which the bike is situated, where all that matters is that the bike works (p 123)

The problem with such fixation is that the mechanic’s activity, properly understood, is practical in character, rather than curious or theoretical. As such it must be disciplined by a circumspect regard for others, a kind of fiduciary consciousness. Acquiring practical wisdom entails overcoming the self-absorption of the idiot but also the tunnel vision of the curious man whose attention is indeed directed outside of himself, but who sees only his own goal (p 123)

The Contradictions of the Cubicle

Managers have to spend a good part of the day “managing what other people think of them.” With a sense of being on probation that never ends, managers feel “constantly vulnerable and anxious, acutely aware of the likelihood at any time of an organizational upheaval which could overturn their plans and possibly damage their careers fatally” (p 138)

In any group setting, they have to protect their bosses’ deniability by using empty or abstract language to cover over problems, thereby keeping the field of subsequent interpretations as wide open as possible (p 139)

The educational goal of self-esteem seems to habituate young people to work that lacks objective standards and revolves around group dynamics. When self-esteem is artificially generated, it becomes more easily manipulable, a product of social technique rather than a secure possession of one’s own based on accomplishments (p 158)

Thinking as Doing

The current educational regime is based on a certain view about what kind of knowledge is important: “knowing that,” as opposed to “knowing how.” (p 161)

We take a very partial view of knowledge when we regard it as the sort of thing that can be gotten while suspended aloft in a basket (p 163)

If thinking is bound up with action, then the task of getting an adequate grasp of the world, intellectually, depends on our doing stuff in it. And in fact this is the case: to really know shoelaces, you have to tie shoes (p 164)

(Practical knowledge’s) superiority lies in the fact that it begins with the typical rather than the universal, so it goes more rapidly and directly to particular causes, the kind that actually tend to cause ignition problems (p 166)

Work, Leisure, and Full Engagement

There are vocations that seem to offer a tighter connection between life and livelihood. Can such coherence be traced to the nature of the work itself? A doctor deals with bodies, a fireman with fires, a teacher with children (p 182)

Concluding Remarks on Solidary and Self-Reliance

The special appeal of the trades lies in the fact that they resist this tendency towards remote control, because they are inherently situated in a particular context. In the best cases, the building and fixing that they do are embedded in a community of using. Face-to-face interactions are still the norm, you are responsible for your own work (p 199)

The kind of self-reliance I have in mind is essentially different from the cult of the sovereign self, and it requires some further reflection on the idea of agency. It is the activity directed toward some end that is affirmed as good by the actor, but this affirmation is not something arbitrary or private. Rather, it flows from an apprehension of real features of the world (p 206)