Shop Class as Soulcraft

Matthew B. Crawford writes in praise of manual labor, lamenting the disappearance of the shop class (and shop teachers) as our culture focuses on developing knowledge workers who supposedly use their heads, not their hands. He writes: ” At the same time, an engineering culture has developed in recent years in which the object is to “hide the works,” rendering the artifacts we use unintelligible to direct inspection.”

He wonders if a decline in the use of tools has made us “more passive and more dependent. And indeed, there are fewer occasions for the kind of spiritedness that is called forth when we take things in hand for ourselves, whether to fix them or to make them.” Crawford adds: ” So perhaps the time is ripe for reconsideration of an ideal that has fallen out of favor: manual competence, and the stance it entails toward the built, material world.” At Make, we couldn’t agree more.

Crawford, who left a job in a “think-tank” to become a bike mechnanic, traces the history of shop class in America back to the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917, which was meant to meet both vocational and general education requirements. Even from the outset, it seemed designed to create a path from school to the assembly line for the lower class, creating an artificial divide between “white collar” and “blue collar” that separated thinking from doing, which is just wrong.

“First, it assumes that all blue collar work is as mindless as assembly line work, and second, that white collar work is still recognizably mental in character. Yet there is evidence to suggest that the new frontier of capitalism lies in doing to office work what was previously done to factory work: draining it of its cognitive elements. Paradoxically, educators who would steer students toward cognitively rich work options might do this best by rehabilitating the manual trades, based on a firmer grasp of what such work is really like. And would this not be in keeping with their democratic mission? Let them publicly honor those who gain real craft knowledge, the sort we all depend on every day.”

“Shop Class as Soulcraft” appears in the summer 2006 issue of the magazine “The New Atlantis.”