Teaching as Soulcraft

When I was in high school I was always intrigued by the “vocational wing.” It housed classrooms full of drafting tables, washing machines, ovens, and electric drills. But because I was on the “university path,” I was told there was no reason for me to venture down the hall. Instead, I was destined for rooms filled only with books and computers.

Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford is an exploration of work, framed in light of the author’s particular expereience as a motorcycle mechanic and, less happily, as an academic. An excerpt of the book was published recently as an article in the New York Times entitled “The Case for Working with Your Hands.” A recent New Yorker article Fast Bikes, Slow Food, and the Workplace Wars included a discussion of the book. Crawford’s bio is intriguing- a PhD in political philosophy from the University of Chicago and the owner and operator of Shockoe Moto, a motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, VA.

Contrary to the perception of many that manual, blue-collar work is mindless, Crawford argues for the “cognitive richness of manual work” (21). Skilled manual work engages body and mind in work which is intrinsically satisfying because the craftsperson works in pursuit of an “end that is affirmed as good by the actor, but this affirmation is not arbitrary and private…because it flows from an apprehension of the real features of the world” (206). It was the advent of the assembly-line that he believes “sever[ed] the cognitive aspects of manual work from its physical exertion” (31). Initially, this was off-putting to workers.  Henry Ford, for example, had to hire 963 men for every 100 men he hoped to keep in the early days. However, he paid the 100 who did stay double the going wage. Workers became dependent upon the wages and eventually became habituated to abstraction.

In addition to arguing that skilled blue-collar work is more fulfilling, Crawford notes that these kinds of jobs may be the most secure from the threat of future outsourcing, at least as long as it is more cost efficient to repair a particular item rather than replace it. He cites economist Alan Blinder who says in the future the divide will be between “those types of work that are easily deliverable through a wire (or via wireless connection) with little or no diminution in quality and those that are not” (33). He asks (inspired by Frank Levy’s notion of rules-based jobs)- “In what circumstances does the human element remain indispensable and why? (35)

Shop Class as Soulcraft is meaty enough for those looking for a philosophical meditation on the qualities of the good life and good work. Aristotle’s writing is integral to Crawford’s argument, and he’s clearly influenced by Alasdair MacIntyre. But the book is also an account of a specific work- motorcycle repair.

flickr.com photo by bonvinity
flickr.com photo by bovinity

While I confess to skimming some of the more technical bits on motorcycle repair, I enjoyed thinking about the ways in which Crawford’s premise might apply to teaching, the current craft in which I find myself engaged. I see in his description of meaningful work much of my experience of teaching, especially his observation that “the progressive character of revelation energizes your efforts to become competent– something about the world is coming into clearer view, and it is exciting.” (207). I gain a better vision of what a great teacher is the more I do the work of teaching and the more I watch and talk to those who have done it for longer than I. However, Crawford suggests for many the experience of teaching has “taken a back seat to the more socially salient task of sorting, and grading becomes more important for its social consequences than for its pedagogical uses” (146). I doubt that the relegation of craft to task has happened as a result of the craftsperson, but rather the demands of the market.

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?

A final thought- Crawford’s book might challenge those who work as experts in the field of education policy or technology integration, without themselves being engaged in the craft of teaching. Aristotle wrote, “those who dwell in intimate association with nature and its phenomenon 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” (23). To illustrate this point, Crawford notes the absolute unhelpfulness of many repair manuals when confronting challenging motorcycle problems. Likewise, the greatest educational innovation on paper is worthless if it cannot withstand the reality of 20-40 teenagers 🙂

Addendum: Jim Burke has also reflected on teaching and The New Yorker article mentioned above on his blog.


2 thoughts on “Teaching as Soulcraft

  1. I think you are asking hard questions here, especially since the work of school often only reflects the work of school, and not the work of anything else. I am spending some time this summer looking at the authentic ways I use my literacy skills (which seems to include making silly comments on Twitter and responding to this post) and finding ways to construct a learning environment that teaches that.

    Thank you for giving me something to think about.

  2. Your post is rich in ideas for discussion and thought. Thank you! I like how you point out the possibility of flaw in the “real world” notion that many schools/teacher/admins are preparing students for; that world is a nebulous one that mostly goes undefined. I think those “practical” skills often taught may reflect more of the things teachers wish they would have been taught successfully in school, rather than what they believe students will use in the future.

    I think “cultivating knowledge” has to mean planting a small seed idea from the teacher’s life which blooms from the student’s experiences, rather than just handing kids something pre-made.

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