Work Befitting A Free Man

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“I feel like I’ve been sort of … anointed this voice in the culture by people who, if they’d seen me two years ago when I was just fixing motorcycles would have said, ‘What are you doing with your life?'”

So says Matthew Crawford, author of the new book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work.  Five months into his career at conservative Washington, D.C., think tank the Marshall Institute, he abandoned it in favor of starting his own motorcycle restoration business.

Educated in philosophy and political thought at the University of Chicago, Crawford “takes America to task for devaluing skilled manual labor. Trade work, he argues, is more psychologically, financially and intellectually satisfying than the white-collar information-processing jobs for which schools and colleges typically educate their students.”

“Skilled labor has been part of Crawford’s life since he started doing electrical work at age 14 in the Northern California community where he grew up. As an undergraduate physics major at the University of California, Santa Barbara, he did electrical work to support himself through the summers.  Crawford was an indifferent student until his senior year, when he happened on his roommate’s copy of The Closing of the American Mind. Written by University of Chicago classics professor Allan Bloom, the 1987 polemic was an angry, unapologetic defense of high culture….  It’s a book Crawford is now wary of associating himself with, given the extreme reactions it often provokes.

“”It blew me away,’ he admits, after some hesitation. ‘Bloom offered a convincing diagnosis of contemporary life by tracing our intellectual genealogy, showing the sources of our confused, taken-for-granted opinions in the works of serious thinkers. It was incredibly liberating and exciting.'”

This spurred him to pursue a Ph.D. at UChicago, which he completed in 2000.  Afterward, he got the job at the Marshall Institute, which sent him “rushing toward work that was genuinely rational (fixing motorcycles), rather than work that was guided by the need to perform some weird pretense of rationality.”

“Coming up with the best arguments money could buy,” says Crawford, “wasn’t work befitting a free man.”  His book, reviewed in the San Francisco Chronicle, calls for a return to the kind of work that gives people a sense of passion and agency–things he says a white-collar job can’t provide.


Claire Caplan enjoys dotting Is and crossing Ts. She works for a public radio station in Baltimore, Maryland. More from this author →