Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Book Review: Shop Class as Soul Craft

I recently finished the book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew Crawford. It has been sitting on my bookshelf waiting for me for months, and it was well worth the time it took me to pick it up and read it. The book has some things in common with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, to which it is often compared, but is a much more focused and polemical book. I don't mean "polemical" in a negative way, but it is true that Crawford has a point to make: manual trades are just as important as "knowledge work." Further, denigrating trades as though they were for those who are less smart or couldn't hack it in the new "knowledge economy" is seriously flawed from pyschological, economic, and philosophical points of view. We are poorer in every way when we misunderstand the nature of physical work. This seems like common sense, and yet the trend in education and other social fields has been a pernicious erosion of the value of manual work.

All I can say about this book is "yes, yes, yes." I agree with virtually every point Crawford makes that I can possibly critique, and I found much of his rich historic analysis (he does have a PhD in Political Philosophy) fascinating. Like many good books, he often finds a way of naming things that I only intuitively perceived. For example, he does a great differentiation between a "crew" and a "team." For the sake of his argument he was talking about "teams" as they commonly form in the office environment. He picks apart the vague and unmeasurable goals, the petty politics of power and influence, and all the other common pathologies of office work. Then he defines "crews" as groups of people focused on accomplishing a concrete task (such as building a house). There is a transparency to the work--you either hang a door correctly or you failed, and everyone who encounters the door knows it. In a crew, there is instant and obvious accountability to all the other people on the crew. Influence and power accrue by default to those with the most skill and expertise. You can't bluff your through as part of a crew.

Maybe this is why I like being a part of a crew that races sailboats, or a crew that builds canoes. There isn't much political nonsense in those endeavours. You shape a rib correctly or you don't. You hammer in a tack correctly or it must be redone. You call a lay-line right on the skipper has to tack and tack at the pin (wasting precious time and distance). Meanwhile, the vast majority of my work in church land is impossible to evaluate in a meaningful way. Sometimes I get an "attaboy" when it's a particularly visible or successful project or event. When I preach a particularly good sermon or something like that. But the vast majority of what I do can't be evaluated. This is just the nature of the kind of work I do, and I learned long ago that I would have to rely on self-validation, or perhaps the consolations of the Holy Spirit, rather than rely on exterior sources. So when I get a nice letter from a parishioner I file it away. When a colleague compliments me I enjoy the warm feeling, but I don't rely on either.

So how does the Holy Spirit give me feedback? That's a great question (and is far beyond what Crawford would be comfortable exploring). I'd say it starts in prayer. When I'm praying, really praying, by myself and according to my own tastes, I often feel that God is present and that I am aligned with God's purposes (at least for those minutes of prayer). That's very comforting to me. Occasionally I'll receive a stronger "showing"--perhaps a VERY strong feeling or a vision/impression of some sort. Maybe a dream. Just as often, the feedback will come in the form of a seemingly random event that confirms an impulse. Often these involve other people. For instance, one particularly dark time many years ago I was very unhappy. Then, out of the blue, I received a sextant that my father sent me. It was a WW II vintage aviation sextant of the sort my grandfather once used to fly back and forth across the pacific. The imagery of "The Navigator" is one of the metaphors I use to think of myself, so the sextant has always been a powerful symbol of my identity and calling. At the time I was praying heavily, and that helped, but receiving this sextant seemed like a wonderful answer to those prayers.

A more recent example would be how I've been praying that God would send me guidance about where lead Church of The Messiah. I believe those prayers have been answered by a very strong "leading" and some new people coming into the extended life of our church. When God sends me people like DS and BS (I don't want to embarrass them), I take it is as a celestial pat on the back.

Matthew Crawford
Anyway, back to the book! Crawford argues (successfully, IMHO) that we have come to emphasize, in our school system, one career track. The notion that everyone should go to to college (and perhaps graduate school) and work with their mind in just nonsense. Good plumbers are essential to making civilization flourish, and the work they do requires just as much excellence and intellectual engagement as anything done in front of a computer. So we need to advocate for including the manual arts in all levels of education, otherwise we're going to raise a generation that can't even assemble Ikea furniture on their own!

The ministry analogue, btw, would be people who start in a parish and I have no idea how lead a group in any kind of brainstorming process, who can't manage conflict, and who have no idea how to hire a person, update a website, or do any of the other hundreds of tasks necessary to make a church run. I'm surprised by the number of seminaries I've met who haven't even heard of Family Systems Theory, the Alban Institute Church Size Topology, or many other practical bits of knowledge that I use constantly.

If you are involved at all in education, especially of young people, read this book. If you care about your stuff and where it comes from, read this book. If you want to know more about knowing, read this book!

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