Shop Class as Soulcraft

The Separation of Thinking from Doing

20090526_shopclassw70.jpgMatthew Crawford’s excellent Shop Class as Soulcraft¹ is an impassioned defense of the value of manual work and the particular rewards of work that one is personally invested in. Although his focus is on the trades, his overall inquiry into the value of various kinds of work has a lot of relevance for the artist as well. He investigates the alienation of the “knowledge worker” from the results of their labor and argues that the greater the autonomy of the worker, the more intellectually stimulating the work is. He also argues that working with one’s hands provides a mental stimulation, a way of literally “getting in touch with the world” that layers of management and an over-reliance on process have removed from the office worker. This concept of literally thinking better by working with one’s hands has a particular resonance for an artist working in traditional materials.

Crawford traces “the separation of thinking from doing” to the beginning of the 20th century and the movement to systematically observe and study work. Originally called “Scientific Management”, the stated goal was that “all possible brain work should be removed from the shop and centered in the planning or laying-out department.” The most influentual proponent of scrientific management is Frederick Winslow Taylor, who writes: “It is only through enforced standardization of methods, enforced adoption of the best implements and working conditions, and enforced cooperation that this faster work can be assured. And the duty of enforcing the adoption of standards and enforcing this cooperation rests with management alone.”² The principle of scientific management finds its first triumph in the assembly line. Ford discovered that the assembly line “provoked a natural revulsion” when it was first introduced: craftsmen simple walked off the job. He found it was necessary to hire 963 men just to retain 100 of them. He found a solution by doubling wages. Paradoxically, this enabled Ford to triple its output because the workers were now so anxious to keep their jobs: “anxious workers were more productive.” In other words, although the workers still didn’t like it, the prospect of getting twice what any other carriage maker was paying was too much to pass up. Thus, keeping workers in a state of anxiety increased efficiency. Good for Ford, and good for the workers’ wallet, but not so great for their state of mind.

He then draws a line to a similar degradation of white-collar work in the present day. The intention is still to transfer knowledge, skill, and decision making from employee to employer. He makes an excellent observation when he notes that the modern corporation’s enthusiasm for process has it’s roots in the same desire to separate thinking from doing and to create efficiencies by taking unpredictable individual decision-making out of the equation and making sure that everyone’s job is very specifically delineated. Just as in the assembly line, each knowledge worker has his or her assigned role and one is expected not to deviate from that by too much.

The White-Collar Assembly Line

This creates much of the cognitive dissonance familiar to anyone who has worked in an office setting. Companies want employees productive and they want processes streamlined and set down in charts. But they also want their employees to show a certain amount of individual initiative. These motives are at odds with one another and create many of the philosophical absurdities that characterize office culture. Unfortunately, Crawford doesn’t make this connection, as he veers off instead at the shibboleth of multiculturalism (perhaps a vestige of his days at the think tank.) The reason that companies place so much value on teamwork is not because they have been infiltrated by liberals, but because in the office, the assembly line is made of people. Unlike Ford’s assembly line where the conveyor belt did the work of moving the project along, in the office any significant project is passed from one person to the next, and it’s important that people are able to communicate and get along to insure that the hand-off goes smoothly. In a human conveyer belt, if the workers are at odds with one another, the work goes more slowly; the conveyor belt breaks down and the knowledge worker assembly line becomes unproductive. It has nothing to do with ideology and everything to do with productivity.

Self Esteem? Kind of Irrelevant, Actually

He gets it right when he writes on page 149 that “workers must…exhibit a high level of ‘buy-in’ to ‘the mission'” and that this is important to the corporation’s goals for the reasons of productivity stated above. But he fails to draw that conclusion, instead going off on a tangent about the evils of self-esteem. Although he draws on some real-life examples of new-agey team-building coaches and seminars, he doesn’t realize that such activities occupy a miniscule amount of the knowledge worker’s time: perhaps 3 weeks in a decade? (I would actually say less, but I am being charitable. Perhaps it depends on the company.) The corporation does not promote team-building and self-esteem out of some sense of squishy altruism. They do it because they don’t want their workers to slow productivity with disagreements.

Mastery is a By-product of Creativity Cultivated through Long Practice

He writes “creativity is a by-product of mastery of the sort that is cultivated through long practice.” I happen to think that he has it slightly backward: I would say that mastery is a by-product of creativity cultivated through long practice. But it is really a disagreement over semantics, we are essentially in agreement that mastery requires a lot of hard work and master craftsmen and artists do not spring fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus. But why do you start? Because you have to. Because you are compelled. So it begins, not ends, with creativity. But this is coming from a sketcher and painter of pictures—a person whose work is by its very nature useless (although human beings seem to need art for unknown reasons…eh, perhaps there is some use after all.) We are arriving at the same place by different directions: for the master, both creativity and mastery are needful. Perhaps the craftsman must master his craft before he can become creative, whereas the artist begins with the creative impulse and masters his materials to enable that impulse to manifest itself in the way he desires.

1. The book is based on an essay published in The New Atlantis in 2006. The essay gives a good overview of the book’s thesis and is well worth the read.
2. Frederick Winslow Taylor, The Principles of Scientific Management, 1911.

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