Saturday, November 14, 2009

Bookmarks -- Shop Class as Soulcraft

The subtitle of Matthew B. Crawford's Shop Class as Soulcraft is "An Inquiry Into the Value of Work." This is an apt description of his book, but one wonders who he is asking questions of. At times, Mr. Crawford appears to be forcing the reader to ask the questions, reevaluating the culture that has changed its idea of what it considers valuable work, and how it has changed the nature of education so that perhaps both the "knowledge worker" and the one who works with his/her hands are not in the best of all possible worlds.

Crawford notes that the trend in education is to discourage people away from training for jobs as mechanics and electricians, despite the idea that many are best suited for such careers, not because of intelligence, but because of temperament or because such careers might actually make people happy. I recall that at my high school some were encouraged to go to "trade school" only if their high school counselors felt they lacked the intellectual aptitude (or their families the money to help them feign such), and so these jobs were considered "beneath" those considered mentally capable for other work. The result of the push to get more people into "knowledge work," Crawford writes, is that we have not only people who are in jobs that they are not really able to do, but even when they are, they are not happy. Further, the gulf between such workers is so great that those who work as mechanics, for example, are hampered because people with no real experience in the craft are the ones the mechanic has to turn to for information instead of relying as much on his learned intuition and the community he builds around him.

That learning and community have not disappeared, Crawford tells us. But he hints that it might be diminishing.

I never saw my grandfather doing the work his college degree trained him for. But I knew about it. I often saw of him as a fixer, someone who took his own knowledge and willingness to tinker, and turned it into something good, often delighting in what he learned along the way. My father, who had spent many years as an airplane mechanic, was as creative a person as I've ever known. And my step-father, a mailman, was rarely at a loss working around the house. Perhaps this is why the book, despite some of its problems, appeals to me.


I had the opportunity to sit in a library for a couple of hours, one where I had no privileges to check out books. Otherwise I would have taken home the copy of Yusef Komunyakaa's Warhorses I read while there. Komunyakaa is one of the our best and most significant poets, remaining so long after winning the Pulitzer for Neon Vernacular.

Warhorses is divided into three sections. The first is a sequence of blank and free verse sonnets titled, "Love In The Time of War." Here Komunyakaa writes, of course, of the many loves and losses during wartime, but also the battles during love. In the section, "Heavy Metal," there are poems which explore the connections of machines and madness to beauty. The final section, "Autobiography of My Alter Ego," is a free verse sequence about betrayal and forgiveness. Here Komunyakaa also addresses the theme of the wanderer.

I very much look forward to re-reading this packed volume again.