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.