Book review: The past and future of work

The Craftsman, by Richard Sennett
Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, by Matthew B. Crawford
, by Cory Doctorow

Years ago, when we lived in the middle of New Jersey, I managed to get myself elected to the local school board, mostly by accident. This wasn’t exactly the plan—it was the incumbents, and me, and I just did it so that there would be a contested election. To my surprise, I got elected. And one of the first things I got to do, after dealing with the budget that got voted down that year for the first time in living memory, and the proposal to get rid of the German teacher (which passed), was deal with the proposal to get rid of the shop program and replace it with something that had “technology” in whatever the rubric was, presumably because everyone in the shop classes was now going to become a “knowledge worker.” I spoke against the plan, but I think I lost the argument, which was not unusual. I voted to keep the German teacher, and that didn’t work out either.

It turns out that this was part of an emerging national trend that I was unaware of at the time. But Matthew Crawford points out in his stimulating but frustrating Shop Class as Soulcraft, you can trawl eBay and pick up all sorts of used shop equipment being sold off by school districts around the country. This may be a good thing for the hobbyist woodworker looking to upgrade his band saw, but as a national trend, it leaves much to be desired. Crawford has written an extended rant against this trend—one where not only does anyone know how to do anything anymore, but no one is bothering to teach anyone how to do anything either. To a large extent it’s a successful rant—he has some good thoughts on why this is a bad trend. Like all rants, it leaves something to be desired, but it successfully captures a certain truth as well.

Coincidentally, I had just finished Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman when I picked up the Crawford book, and I thought they might complement each other nicely. The fact that they don’t, really, has more to do with the aims of each book, which are somewhat different, as we’ll see. But both Sennett and Crawford have written important books that require our attention. Sennett’s volume is the first of a planned trilogy dealing with the whole notion of craft, and it use (and abuse) in the tapestry of human history and development. As such, it is a more philosophic and historical work than is Crawford’s, and is a volume of intellectual history in a way that Crawford’s book is not. On the other hand, Crawford’s book is likely to resonate more with current American and European readers, because his subject has an immediacy and obvious contemporary context that Sennett’s appears to not have.

Sennett is concerned with craftsmanship as an end itself, but it’s more than that. He is concerned with craftsmanship in its broadest context, that of mastery of a set of skills, and includes not only what we would expect him to include, but other areas as well, such as cooking and music-making. Because mastery of skills can cover a broad range of activities, Sennett does as well. And Sennett makes it clear early on that he is concerned not only with the impact of this mastery of skills on society (and we’ll get more of that in the next two volumes), but he is also concerned with what one needs to do in order to achieve this state of mastery. And what sort of community facilitates all of this, and what sort of community does not. And it turns out it’s a lot more complicated than we would think. Sennett takes us through the physiology of the level of hand/eye coordination that needs to be developed by someone operating something manually. Sennett also takes us through the history of crafting things, at least in the where the medieval guilds are generally used as an exemplar of the craft system, with its hierarchy of skills, its period of apprenticeship, its quest for perfection. Sennett also spends considerable time discussing the British—or, more precisely, English—Arts and Crafts movement, and in particular the influence of John Ruskin, for whom the medieval craftsman was the ideal for what work should be, and what was being lost in the mass industrialization of the Victorian era.

Sennett is so broad ranging—cooking, Ruskin, Diderot’s Encyclopedia, music-making, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s architectural adventures, the physiology and musculature of the hand, the role of community in the creation of the craftsman—that at times the going does get a bit heavy. As exhilarating as this journey is, it sometimes gives the feeling of being perhaps a bit too broad. But that is exactly Sennett’s point—the ability and willingness to simply do good work is indispensable to being human, and in order to understand what we’re losing as a culture and society when we make it impossible for a substantial number of fellow citizens to do just that, Sennett recognizes that we need to understand the complexity of what goes into creating craftsmen and craftswomen. It’s not just the creation and appreciation of good work—it’s having a society that inculcates the processes that are necessary to learn to do good work, and to support the work once it’s done.

There is a philosophical theme running through here as well, which is Sennett’s response to his old teacher Hannah Arendt. Arendt made a distinction between activities that fulfilled what she referred to as animal needs, and other work that reflected “higher” activities of art and culture. Sennett finds this a false and dangerous distinction, one that ultimately betrays the goals of the Enlightenment. Sennett has a long discussion of Diderot’s Encyclopedia (the full title of which is actually “Encyclopedia, or Dictionary of Arts and Crafts.”) As Sennett points out, this was essentially a 35-volume collection of Arts and Crafts instructions—how to blow glass, how to repair furniture and so on. And this was produced with painstaking attention to the skills of the craftsmen represented by the Arts and Crafts surveyed by Diderot. This was Diderot’s attempt to repair the bridge that had grown us as a result of the eclipse of he medieval guild system during the Renaissance, when work and craft began to be separated. For Sennett, the task of the craftsman is to integrate the hand and the mind so that each informs the other—and much of the book is a discussion of attempts to do just that by individuals in history, and of the explication of the need to do this by thinkers such as Diderot and Ruskin.

Sennett has written a book of history, philosophy and psychology, and his discussions only rarely touch on the fact that so few people in modern America or Britain (where Sennett lives much of the year) actually have this sort of work to do these days—work that actually engages the mind and the hand, work that is the type of work where one can strive to a certain form of perfection. But this is in there anyway through Sennett’s ongoing consideration of the role of community in the creation and sustenance of craftsmanship—one does not become skilled at anything, really, without a social support system of some kind. Which is one reason why getting rid of shop classes is a really bad idea—learning anything, really, involves an apprenticeship, and if we remove the structured support group of the class, where else will these skills be developed? One reason why the conservative onslaught on the union movement over the past several decades has been baffling is the fact that most unions are premised on the apprenticeship system—and this is a deeply conservative method of not only passing skills on, but ensuring that those skills are used in the pursuit of good work. Of course, it may very well be that conservatives aren’t interested in good work, but I doubt it—the folks over at Front Porch Republic certainly are, and this is a strain of conservative thought that has not yet disappeared from cultural discourse.

Crawford, who refers to Sennett more than once, presents a similar argument ultimately, but we get there a different way. For what Crawford delights in telling us (endlessly, it seems at times) is how much he enjoys working with his hands, as opposed to sitting around thinking like he did when he was in graduate school at Chicago and in his subsequent think-tank employment. Crawford constantly seems to be a little too enthusiastic about presenting his academic credentials—really, he shouldn’t, because it does end up distracting from his central argument. And it’s a powerful argument, similar to Sennett’s—we risk devaluation as individuals by our lack of knowing how to do anything. And Crawford clearly does enjoy making things—in his case, motorcycles that run, since he runs his own motorcycle shop. And he is clearly upset by our devaluation of this sort of skillset in modern American culture. Crawford delights in a job well done in the shop—but he has broader concerns as well, mainly the fact that no one knows how to do anything, which means no has any appreciation of the work that people actually do.

This is exactly the sort of thing that is likely to appeal to the crunchycons over at Front Porch Republic, and sure enough it has—there have already been a number of posts on Crawford and his book (although these never gets as embarrassing as the fawning series Crooked Timber had on China Mievelle a few years back). And book reviews have generally been enthusiastic as well, as if Crawford wasn’t mining the same vein Wendell Berry has been mining for the past forty years or so. Clearly, it has to be said, Crawford’s academic background is a factor here. If some motorcycle shop owner in rural Tennessee without Crawford’s academic background (which is impressive, it should be pointed out) were to approach a publisher with a manuscript extolling the virtues of skilled physical labor, how far would he get? To ask the question is to already know the answer. So what we have is that old Eric Hoffer feeling—hey, look, a philosopher telling us that philosophy isn’t as fun as a valve job.

What detracts from the book is that Crawford seems a bit too mindful of this—he just knows how cute this all is, and it gets a bit wearying. As do the throwaway comments that not only don’t seem to fit, they don’t even seem to make sense. For example, we get this (as a number of other reviewers have noted as well):

Wood was for hippies. The wood whisperer with his hand planes, his curly maple, and his workshop on Walden Pond is a stock alter ego of gentlefolk everywhere, and I wanted none of it.

This sounds an awful lot like my own kids used to sound when they talked about hippies—as if it was someone else who rediscovered William Morris, Art Nouveau, and living off the land. This does not sound like someone who has exactly absorbed Sennett’s message, frankly. My kids grew out of it, and maybe Crawford will too, at some point, and hopefully then we’ll no longer get pointless but snide comments on “the 1968 generation,” whoever they are, and multiculturalism. I had a similar response to Crawford’s vaguely anti-feminist comments in the context of the joys of male camaraderie in the shop. Crawford is too smart to really take this seriously—there are joys to be had in male companionship, just as there are joys to be had in female companionship. How any of this relates to Crawford’s main theme, particularly the devaluation of work in modern America, is a little vague, and eventually seems like little more than an attempt to establish some sort of street cred.

Which is a shame, actually, since there is a very important book buried in here bursting to get out if only Crawford would let it. Because what Crawford is really concerned about, like Sennett, is what kind of society we get when we no longer take the notion of craftsmanship seriously. In fact, a society that looks pretty much like the society we’re getting, with permanently high unemployment, little appreciation of craftsmanship, and the inability to properly write an instruction manual. Crawford’s description of the current state of writing instruction manuals is one of the funniest in the book, a book actually chock full of funny and instructive anecdotes. Who will not appreciate Crawford’s discussion of those ridiculous little screws that hold modern gadgets together for which no known screwdriver actually exists in one’s own workshop? Or his discussion of what we all find under the hood of a car, pretty much any car, these days. (Ironically, one of the ideals of the hippies that Crawford is so dismissive of was to be able to fix your own car.) For Crawford, it’s all of one piece, though—our collective disregard as a society for actual work, and the consequences we reap as a society for our inattention to the joys of work properly done. It’s the artificial distinction between ”knowing” and ”doing” that has brought us so much grief. And Crawford makes an elegant argument that this whole approach is specious—and in this regard comes close to Sennett’s principal argument as well. And, of course, Berry. Like Berry and Sennett, Crawford is deeply appreciative of the kind of knowledge that manual and physical workers need to develop, and deeply distrustful of a culture that does not perceive the value of work.

Here Crawford and Sennett converge, and at times Crawford the bike shop owner often sounds a bit more radical that that old lefty Sennett. Crawford spends quite a lot of time laying out how work actually reflects our engagement in the world, and gives a good discussion of Heidegger to boot, specifically Heidegger’s attempts to get at the whole notion of engagement with the world. For Crawford, as for Aristotle and Heidegger, it’s through what we do. And at its best Shop Craft as Soulcraft is a plea to appreciate the work that people do, to move past the sort of divide that has emerged the past several decades. Both Crawford and Sennett want us to have the tools to live well—and this means a certain self-reliance that comes from knowing how to do things well. For Crawfod, like Sennett, believes that everyone is capable of good work, and deserves the opportunity to do good work. And he is as unhappy as Sennett that society continues its surge away from the sustaining of communities where people can do just that.

And that is exactly the kind of society that we’ve got now, particularly in the Anglosphere—the US, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and, to a lesser extent, Canada. Because the economic model we’ve been living with the past three decades has in fact been attacking this sort of work. But for all his rants at ”managerialism,” Crawford has little interest in discussing the wider economic and political system that has allowed this estrangement between work and the rest of society to develop, other than to note that that’s the way it is. In Europe, with which I am vaguely familiar, living right next door, it is different to a considerable extent—Germany has extensively build on its apprenticeship system, as has France. Which may in part explain why Germany, until very recently, was the world’s largest exporter in spite of the high value of the Euro relative to other currencies (China has recently caught up). France, which as everyone in the US knows is deeply “socialist,” (and we know this because Republican senators from southern states keep telling us), has managed to maintain an agricultural system where it is still possible for small farmers to make a living, and for the kind of local knowledge underlying Sennett’s notion of craftsmanship is still surviving, if not actually thriving.

In fact, one of the disappointments of both books is their non-attention to the political and economic trends that dominate modern American life to the detriment of the kind of self-reliance and craftsmanship that both authors discuss. Now, I’ll admit that this is a bit unfair, since certainly in Sennett’s case this is clearly beyond the scope of the current book (although not necessarily of his project.) But it is a bit of a surprise that Crawford doesn’t take the next step—a discussion of the social, economic and institutional impediments to doing good work, other than that there are a lot of crappy jobs out there. For all his exhortations that we should, if not become motorcycle mechanics, at least give due respect to the kind of work he (and millions of others) actually do, it is a surprise that he doesn’t give a more thorough discussion to the impediments that not only exist, but which keep growing. These have certainly been dealt with successfully in the past—David Noble’s Forces of Production, and George Anders’ Merchants of Debt, both have discussed extensively the gutting of the kinds of institutional knowledge in machine tool manufacturers for the sake of corporatism and profitability that Crawford and Sennett want to place at the center of our notion of work. There was a time in the history of the American machine tool industry when good work meant a certain kind of interaction between designer and machine—that went by the wayside a long time ago. In both Noble’s and Anders’ books, we see the kind of craftsmanship sought by Sennett and Crawford deliberately undermined and abandoned by management, for a variety of reasons—in these cases, union busting and margins, respectively.

In fact, it’s not hard to envision the remains of economies in which good work is abandoned. We see the detritus all around us, in the Midwest manufacturing corridor in the US, in the abandoned industrial cities of Northern England, and the constant movement of manufacturing around the world as capital relentlessly seeks out cheaper labor—today it’s China, tomorrow it’s Cambodia, all so that Wal-Mart can undercut local merchants. For all of Sennett’s diligence to the evolution of craftsmanship, and Crawford’s impassioned defense of the value of skilled physical work, we still inhabit a society where such work continues to be devalued, and where the institutional barriers to doing real work continue to get higher. The consequences are all around us, and there’s no reason to think this situation will get any better any time soon. We live in an economy where, according economist Samuel Bowles, about one in four jobs exists to protect the riches of the wealthy. Localism is partly the answer, as Wendell Berry and the Front Porch Republic crew keep telling us, but true localism requires the maintenance, development and sharing of a variety of knowledge and skillsets that are rapidly disappearing.

But one can always hope. One who does is Cory Doctorow, speculative fiction writer and erstwhile proprietor of Boing Boing, one of the more interesting blogs out there. Doctorow has a particular interest in technology, about which he is deeply knowledgeable and deeply concerned. His new novel, Makers, is a hoot, a serious romp, if such a thing were possible. The title—Makers—tells it all. It’s about the human compulsion for making things, even that even when denied the opportunity to do so, people will still try. A whole bunch of attractive geeks make interesting things, and then other people do as well, and so on until crises emerge, etc. This is the really hard kind of speculative fiction to write—the kind that’s about the world in 20 years. And America is a deeply unhappy place at this point—millions living in abandoned malls, eating crap food, and then suddenly getting the opportunity to do something in a culture that is, if anything, more corporatist than the one Americans inhabit now. Thank heaven for small, stupid robots. I won’t bother telling you what the New Work is all about—you’ll just have to read it for yourself, but Sennett and Crawford would approve. Highly recommended.

5 replies »

  1. Oh thank you, thank you, thank you. Sennett just jumped to the top of my reading list.

    I come from a family of craftsmen, mostly carpenters, some professional some just serious hobbyist. My great-grandfather went blind at the beginning of the Great Depression and eventually taught himself how to use all of his power tools again. He even built a house without the ability to see anything, which has its advantages i suppose. You can work in the dark.

    A little piece of me has always wished that i’d skipped the higher education and pursued the graceful art and craft of carpentry from an early age, but i’m not sure that i’d appreciate it as i do had i taken a different path. I do however count my blessings that i found a craft/art and have been able to pursue it as a full time occupation within a local environment that supports and appreciates it. I don’t think i’m off base in describing horticulture as a craft in the sense that Sennett and Crawford are using. (I also feel lucky to have experienced it in bookmaking.)

    Or maybe i’m just weird, an 80 year old trapped in a 36 year old body. One of the reasons i drive the vehicle i do is that when i open the hood i actually understand what’s happening to motivate the car and can do something about it if things aren’t right. Of course my vehicle was built by Japanese workers at a time when the philosophy described above seems to have been the goal that whole companies were striving towards with the understanding that sales and profits would flow from the properly executed philosophy. So maybe it’s just a rolling affirmation of how i think the world should operate.

    And i find it strange to live in a culture where it seems that the goal is to not know things, to not care for the simple pleasure of holding the end product in your hand, and to value cheap disposability over something that exhibits the success and good work of another human being. I try to eat local food for many reasons, but the biggest one is that it represents the knowledge and labor of a man (woman) who cares.

    And i don’t find intellectualism and craftsmanship to be mutually exclusive; actually, they go very well together. The former gives depth to the latter, which gives solidity to the former and grounds it in the real world.

  2. Your last paragraph summarizes everything very nicely. Like Crawford, I’m aghast at the devaluation of physical work that has taken place the past three decades. Much physical work involves a strong intellectual component, and this is what Sennett in particular demonstrates–how hard this can be much of the time, and what we have to do to master a whole range of physical skills. Personally, I blame Reagan, but I tend to blame Reagan for everything anyway. But it’s not a coincidence, I think, that the war against the unions, which really took off in the 1980s, corresponded with this devaluation. Unions aren’t the whole answer, obviously, but it’s interesting to note that in Sweden and Germany, where unions remain very strong, so does the manufacturing sector, and so does the whole notion of apprenticeship and mastering a craft.

    And as far as horticulture goes, Morris and Ruskin would absolutely agree with you!

  3. Nice review — and thanks for the kind words about “Merchants of Debt.” Actually the fullest look at the rise and fall of a craft culture inside American industry is Max Holland’s book “When the Machine Stopped.” It came out in 1989 or so, published by Harvard Business School Press.

    It stands the test of time very well.

  4. Thanks for the comment. Yes, that one has been on the pile for some time now, but just hanve’t gotten around to it yet–will move it up to the top now!