INTERVIEW Mens et Manus

The Manual Arts as Mindwork

Matthew B. Crawford runs a motorcycle repair shop. He is also a writer and enjoyed a multi-year affair with academia in political philosophy. In his new book Shop Class as Soulcraft, he considers his experiences as white-collar minion vs. self-employed manual tradesman. Crawford argues that for many, the second may be both more economically rewarding and fundamentally satisfying.

The Tech: How would you compare your particular trade of motorcycle repair to other professions involving hands-on activity? I’m thinking of both prestigious “white-collar” occupations like medicine or experimental science, and less well-paying ones in the service industry such as hairdresser or cook?

Matthew Crawford: I see clear parallels between medicine and what a mechanic does; both are diagnosing and fixing things that are not of their own making, and therefore they have to get outside their own heads and pay attention. This is what a good artist does as well, if her art is representational.

TT: Or what about raising children? You were criticized in The New York Times Book Review for a “macho” attitude — was that a fair criticism?

MC: I was left scratching my head a little by that review. I wrote about what I know, which is trades that are more commonly done by men. But there are women in these trades. The best Ducati mechanic in Richmond, as anyone will tell you, is a woman named Deanna. I think women face some extra hurdles; they have to overcome a set of preconceptions when they become mechanics or go into the building trades. There’s a very good book coming out this summer by Jessica DuLong. She’s a marine engineer; she runs the engines on a fireboat on the Hudson River. She does a really nice job of describing the process of dealing with people’s attention toward her as a peculiarity. The fact is, most mechanical work is a lot more mental than it is physical, so size and strength don’t come into it very often. When they do, the smaller you are, the smarter you have to be about it. I’d say that the desire to take a tool in hand and see a direct effect of your actions in the world is a universal human desire, and that women can relate to this as well as men.

TT: Could you say a little bit on how/why you chose the word “soulcraft” for your title?

MC: The title was originally a riff on the title of a book by George [F.] Will that came out in the ’80s: Statecraft as Soulcraft. I thought substituting “Shop Class” for “Statecraft” was kind of funny. I guess it’s been my own private amusement. Of course, the title is also serious in that education is a kind of forming of the soul, and work forms us as well.

TT: I was struck by how much your writing built on ideas from Marx and Heidegger. Did these thinkers have an effect on the way you lead your life in a concrete and immediate way?

MC: It’s totally post-hoc. I guess we’re drawn to thinkers that help us make sense of our own experiences. I didn’t get into Heidegger until several years after I’d left grad school. On slow winter days at the shop, there was no taking your mind off the freezing cold in the warehouse, so sometimes I’d head to the library, and that’s where I started reading Heidegger. I’m still finding my way into his thought; Division I of Being and Time keeps unfolding beautiful things for me, and I haven’t ventured much beyond it, except for a couple of later essays.

TT: The philosopher Stephen Toulmin has advocated similar ideas (e.g. in Cosmopolis) about practical concerns, or the importance of the specific over the “deadening abstraction” of general laws favored by many scientists and thinkers. Have you read him? What do you think?

MC: I haven’t read Toulmin. The other day, somebody informed me that I am a Deweyan. I haven’t read him either. I learned long ago not to be surprised when it turns out I’ve been re-inventing the wheel. There isn’t much new under the sun.

TT: Are you glad that you spent those years in graduate school?

MC: I loved every minute of being in grad school at Chicago. It’s what comes after grad school that is so demoralizing: often years of bouncing around the country in one-year visiting positions, teaching four classes a semester, and therefore being unable to extricate yourself from this purgatory by publishing. I know one guy who’s been doing that for ten years! I could see it coming in my own case, but luckily dodged it.

TT: There’s one passage where you say that the academic world struck you as “an industry” and furthermore, one “hostile to thinking.” But you distinguish between academia in general and “the intellectually serious circle of my friends and teachers at Chicago.”

MC: My “hostile to thinking” comment pertained more to the problem that when thinking gets professionalized, it can kind of turn into its opposite: the policing of various disciplinary boundaries, etc. But, to answer your question, yes, I think Chicago is an amazing place.

TT: Would you advise people who genuinely enjoy school and books to go to graduate school, even if it doesn’t guarantee a satisfying job afterwards?

MC: I would advise anyone who is passionate about ideas to pursue that passion, in whatever way they can.