Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work
By Matthew B. Crawford
2009 The Penguin Press, 248 pp, $25.95
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, maintains Crawford, 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.”
Lost Crafts: Rediscovering Traditional Skills
By Una McGovern
2008 Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd, 376 pp, $24.95
Author Una McGovern turns back the pages of time to remind readers of half-forgotten skills that were once as ubiquitous as the smartphone. Before the industrial revolution, every household had their own cider maker, beekeeper, rope maker, basket weaver, candle maker and much more. These abilities were not just the result of years of learning but also the result of careful observation of the natural world. They made families self-sufficient and in a hostile world this knowledge was often the difference between surviving or not.
The skill of coppicing, for example, is an ancient method of woodland management that intentionally produces material that will later be used for house building, making charcoal, basketry, brooms as well other things important to the function and comfort of the household. Like most of the skills in this book, coppicing is not instant gratification. And, it also requires the craftsman to work in tune with nature. When a broad-leaved tree is cut down, if the stump and roots are left intact, the tree will coppice. This means the tree will put its energy into regrowing by sending out new shoots. When the shoots reach the correct size for their intended purpose (which could be years) they are harvested and the process starts over. A practice similar to coppicing is called pollarding. Instead of cutting the tree at the ground, the tree is cut about eight feet up. Because the resulting shoots grow above the grazing level of animals, it is a useful method of growing firewood in an area that is also used as pasture.
Lost Crafts is filled with practical, simple knowledge that enabled former generations to live in harmony with nature and themselves. In a time where the ability to “work with one’s hands” is once again re-gaining the respect it deserves, this book opens a door. McGovern reminds us that even in a modern world, the ability to make a fire without a match, fish with creel, skin a rabbit, forage for wild food, and navigate by the stars are still very valuable skills to have.
A Year of Pies: A Seasonal Tour of Home Baked Pies
By Ashley English
2012 Lark Crafts, 176 pp, $19.95
Be warned, every page of Ashley English’s A Year of Pies makes your mouth water! English celebrates homemade pies in grand fashion by wandering through a seasonal selection of sweet and savory recipes that provide both comfort and surprise. From traditional recipes like Lattice-Top Triple Berry Pie and Chicken Pot Pie, to Cranberry Mince Tarts and Brandy and Spice Apple Hand Pies, the variety in this book is amazing.
Mushroom and Cheve Galette, Nectarine and Lavender Crostata, Buttered Rum Shoofly Pie, Asparagus and Dill Quiche, and Blackberry Sonker (sonker being North Carolinian for cobbler), are but a few of the delicious offerings. The recipe for Galumpkis Pie is a version of traditional Polish stuffed cabbage rolls. Instead of wrapping the filling in cabbage leaves, the boiled cabbage leaves are layered between the savory meat, rice, herb, and tomato filling, all of which is cradled in a flaky pastry crust. With only six ingredients: milk, eggs, honey, vanilla extract, sea salt, nutmeg and baked in a flaky crust, Honey Pie will add a sweet delight to any meal.
English provides a detailed explanation of pie-making tools, ingredient selection, and careful instruction in the art of making the perfect crust. This colorful cookbook will be welcomed by both beginner and experienced cook. So go ahead, put on your apron and prop this cookbook up on the kitchen counter. It’s just waiting to get a little flour on its pages.
In 1870, farmer and journalist Solon Robinson (1803-1880), published a two-volume book entitled Facts for Farmers. Bound in dark blue leather, the books are emblazoned in gold with the image of an eagle clutching a pole from which an American flag flies. The word “Liberty” caps the flag pole. Beneath the eagle floats a banner which reads, “Agriculture is the most healthful, most useful and most noble employment of man.”
The 1,098 pages of Facts for Farmers are filled with illustrations, graphs, charts and detailed instruction on everything from managing apple orchards to making whitewash. Interwoven are commonsense tips and practical bits of wisdom on the topic of getting along with nature. Robinson upholds the notion that part of what one earns from life as a farmer is contentment, self-respect and personal freedom. In Robinson’s day you didn’t need much more than a strong back, a patch of ground and an earnest measure of patience with which to await the miracles of Mother Nature—the same is still pretty much true today. From time to time, RLJ will revisit the writings of Robinson to share ideas that are as useful today as they were years ago.
For many years Solon Robinson was the agricultural editor of the New York Tribune. In 1862, under the direction of President Abraham Lincoln, he helped establish the United Sates Department of Agriculture (USDA), “for the purpose of helping farmers obtain good seed and providing them sound information for growing their crops.”