Book review: Shop Class as Soulcraft

Hardly a shop or factory today doesn’t suffer from complaints about finding qualified help, and part of the problem has been a dedicated social effort, often promoted by educators, to discourage people from careers that involve manual labor. Despite any income issues to the contrary, there has been a steady decline in the public perceived value or attractiveness of such occupations even extending into small business that involves manufacturing or the trades.

“Shop Class as Soulcraft” is a new book that delves into this issue from an interesting perspective. The author, Matthew B. Crawford, abandoned what many would consider a promising career as a Ph.D. working in a think tank. Instead, he returned to another love, working with his hands repairing motorcycles. Some would call that a huge waste of his academic background. But that contradicts his own feelings of finding more value in bringing an old bike back to life than in creating academic reports.

This book began life as an essay attempting to resolve that contradiction, but it goes into much more detail than could be contained in an essay. Crawford explores issues related to trades and manufacturing, including a few mentions of woodworking. He also brings in a huge amount of academic research related to work and its value, as well as people’s attitudes related to that. For some of those sections, Crawford is clearly wearing his Ph.D. hat and lapsing into academic language that may cause some eyes to glaze over. It’s almost like Crawford is still trying to prove his academic metal. But when he brings in real world examples from his own life experience and those of others, that’s when this book comes alive.

He explores the complex mental calculations contained in manual processes and compares them to academic or office pursuits. He expounds on the obvious immediate positive reinforcement that success brings to those working in the physical world, such as in completing a challenging repair or delivering a finished product to a happy customer. Then he compares that to the often suffocating world of office work with less clear goals and limited compensation beyond the paycheck. But all is not roses. He explores how people try to turn hobbies into work and often take the joy out of the hobby.

For those of us with a strong day-to-day connection to physical work, the book produces a wealth of head-nodding affirmations. Whether it provides enough ammunition to convince educators to rethink their academic career bias, is another question entirely.

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About the author
William Sampson

William Sampson is a lifelong woodworker, and he has been an advocate for small-scale entrepreneurs and lean manufacturing since the 1980s. He was the editor of Fine Woodworking magazine in the early 1990s and founded WoodshopBusiness magazine, which he eventually sold and merged with CabinetMaker magazine. He helped found the Cabinet Makers Association in 1998 and was its first executive director. Today, as editorial director of Woodworking Network and FDMC magazine he has more than 20 years experience covering the professional woodworking industry. His popular "In the Shop" tool reviews and videos appear monthly in FDMC.