In Shop Class as Soulcraft, author, philosopher, and mechanic Matthew B. Crawford challenges the fifty year-old notion that America is headed toward a “postindustrial society” where we are sliding into a pure information economy and leaving our material reality behind. He points out that out-sourced, off-shored workers aren’t much help when it comes to the physical reality of busted water pipes, electrical wiring gone bad, and decks with rotted boards.
For decades high schools have been shedding shop classes, but Crawford maintains that this thinking comes at a high cost for both society and individuals. He argues that manual crafts are no longer honored due to a fear that acquiring a unique skill set means that one’s life is determined. In college, many students don’t learn how to do specific tasks. Their college education is engineered to be a doorway to an open future. While being open to the possibilities of life is a valuable asset, this postindustrial mindset celebrates potential rather actual achievement. Crawford points out, “Prestigious fellowships, internships, and degrees become the standard of self-esteem. This is hardly an education for independence, intellectual adventurousness, or strong character.”
However, in traditional shop class, students learn how to do one thing really well. And in doing so, secure a meaningful place for himself/herself in a society. The value and security of being good at something lies in the fact that the individual has firsthand, personal knowledge which gives that person a large degree of independence as well as personal responsibility.
In 2006 a Wall Street Journal article wondered if, “skilled [manual] labor is becoming one of the few sure paths to a good living.” Crawford points out that there are chronic shortages of skilled labor in many industries. He says, “Out of the current confusion of ideals and confounding career hopes, a calm recognition may yet emerge that productive labor is the foundation of all prosperity.”