An Honest Day's Work: U.Va. Fellow Calls for Restoring Honor to the Trades

March 26, 2009 — Matthew Crawford gave up a prestigious job in Washington, D.C.,
 to open a motorcycle repair shop in Richmond about seven years ago.

Now a fellow at the University of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, Crawford had bounced back and forth between manual labor and white-collar jobs for years. He has found a perch, even if temporary, in academia to discuss and publish his ideas about restoring honor to the trades.

Crawford's book, "Shop Class as Soulcraft," will be published in June. In it, he aims to rescue blue-collar jobs from the intellectual dustbin they've been cast into by what he says is a misdirected notion guiding the management elite and society – a notion that he traces back to high school, where there were separate tracks for college and practical skills. Now, many shop classes have been cut from the curriculum. The elite accord these jobs less value, and that is a misunderstanding that needs to be addressed, said Crawford, who has been an electrician as well as mechanic.

He first published an article about the value of manual labor in the journal New Atlantis in 2006. The responses in e-mail and in the blogosphere were overwhelming, including from those who had left high-prestige jobs to go into the trades, he noted.

"It's a topic people seem to care about," he said.

Publishers and literary agents also started calling and urged him to expand the article into a book. That's where the fellowship has been a big help – giving him time to write.

The trades can be "a choice-worthy career," he said. "It's time to reconsider what a good job looks like.

"Work that is straightforwardly useful can be intellectually engaging and challenging – more so than some jobs that are officially recognized as 'knowledge work,'" Crawford said.

"There's an idea that in the future we are headed for a post-industrial economy," he said. "With the current economic crisis, people are waking up from that dream. They need something more solid, more secure."

Crawford pointed out that business in car repair shops is going up because people aren't buying as many new vehicles. There are other critical jobs that can't be outsourced overseas. For example, the electrical wiring for a house can't be done in China; it has to be installed by a skilled worker in the building.

What really bothers Crawford is the widespread assumption that the trades – such as electrician, plumber, carpenter or mechanic – don't require as much intelligence as office jobs, just because the workers get their hands dirty. Although those jobs are usually considered men's work, he said women no less than men feel the appeal of tangible work.

He said he has thought harder as a mechanic diagnosing an engine than he has in the paper-pushing jobs he has had.

"The dichotomy between mental vs. manual – there's been a deliberate effort to separate the two, but thinking is bound up with doing," he said.

In contrast to many desk jobs, fixing things is complex and variable, especially when you don't know what is wrong, he said.

Before going back to school for a Ph.D. in political philosophy from the University of Chicago, Crawford, who had a master's degree at the time, worked as an indexer and abstract-writer for a company. The employees were given a formula to use in writing the abstracts, so they could meet a quota and didn't have to read the articles carefully and understand what they meant. Office jobs are often dumbed-down like that and don't pay very well, he pointed out. The trades, however, can pay quite well.

Crawford says his book also explores a certain formation of character that occurs in mechanical repair work. The mechanic has to get outside his own head and listen to the ailing machine if he is going to figure out what is wrong with it. This cultivates attentiveness, which he describes as a virtue that is at once moral and cognitive. He suggests this virtue has special significance as a counterweight to the culture of narcissism.

For now, Crawford is enjoying the benefits of both worlds: being part of an intellectual community and having old motorcycles waiting in the shop for his thoughtful touch.

— By Anne Bromley