Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Shop Class as Soulcraft

So about a month ago I went to a blacksmith’s shop to look into buying a hydraulic cylinder. We had never met and we got to talking and I mentioned that I teach woodshop. It is interesting, usually when I tell people I am a teacher there is something of an awkward silence, kind of like if I were to tell people I was a prison guard or maybe a grave digger. It seems most people have their preconception of what being a teacher is like, no doubt based on their own experience of being a student, and it apparently isn’t a job that invites much curiosity. So I was surprised when the blacksmith simply asked what it was really like to be a shop teacher. 

We talked some more and then he asked if I had read “Shop Class as Soulcraft” by Matthew Crawford. I was a little embarrassed because several people have suggested it, in fact I had even started it once from the library . Then I received a copy for Christmas which I promptly exchanged for something I thought would be more interesting. So I sort of fumbled around with an answer and then he ran to the back room and brought out his copy and said I could borrow it. Here a guy I had just met was trusting me with a book, which I think of as a trust just short of borrowing tools, and he was so enthusiastic that I felt compelled to take him up on his offer. 
I did not find it an easy book to read. (I have a pretty good vocabulary and I needed a dictionary, often) Originally I thought it was going to be some romantic, gauzy look at craftmanship and the nobility of the working class. It isn’t, it is a much more honest look at manual work and the author doesn’t try to make working in the trades seem more idealized than it is, ( I built things for 25 years before I became a teacher so I am familiar with the topic).

What he does argue, is that working in the trades can be as intellectually challenging and economically rewarding as getting a college degree and doing white collar work. In fact, he makes the point that the goal of the corporate world is to make white collar work as formulaic and rule bound as possible with the goal of getting predictable results and this can make the work as boring and deadening as any assembly line job. This I have no personal experience with so it would be interesting to hear other viewpoints. 

He also makes the point that any job that can be done on a computer, even jobs like accounting and lawyering, can and will be shipped overseas. (I spent a month in India last summer and I can vouch for that. I toured a private school and the kids were so well spoken, BTW with not hint of an accent, and so motivated that it makes me terrified for my own students who have a fantasy they are going to do some sort of creative computer work for a living. The kids in India would kick their butts and nobody has to know where the electrons come from.) Whereas repairing a car, a boat ,anything, building, plumbing and so on are going have to be done locally.

The book also made me think about my own job because I also teach science besides shop. I can get my science students involved and force them to do the work but in shop I have to almost force them to stop, which illustrates another tenet of the book, that is that working with your hands is innately human. 

And it brings it home to me how much pressure there is that every student go to college. I was a science teacher before I taught shop and I remember the first time I reported on a shop student’s progress how dismissive the other teachers and professionals were during a meeting to discuss his problems. “That’s fine but how is he doing in is academic classes…” The home-ec teacher later welcomed me to the “vocational ghetto” when I related the story. I bite my tongue at faculty meetings sometimes because of this attitude. There is a lot of lip service to vocational programs but they are always sort of a fallback position for the kid who can’t do college. (I do have to give my district a great deal of credit for supporting my own program financially, but the attitude is prevalent) 

In any case I thought I would throw this out there for some discussion. If you are interested here is a link to the original essay that prompted the book.


  1. You do a lot of projects in science that are similar to some of the projects you do in woodshop, but you say that it is harder to keeps kid going in science. Why do you think this is?

  2. I also wonder about your statement about white collar jobs. I'm not interested nor impressed with this country's obsession with what can be measured. As for business, if you're making money, profit even, why not have fun and encourage creativity at the same time? Dan Pink has some great ideas for motivating people at work, which applies to school and you get to experience that in shop! That's awesome.

    BTW, your book essay link doesn't work.

  3. Yes I do do a lot of projects in science and I continually wonder whether they are educationally important. The kids do love them and in fact they want to work on them just as itently as in shop class, however the difference is that in shop I am trying to teach them how to use a tablesaw, make a tight joint, or put on a nice finish and that is the goal. In science I tend to think I should teach some science content and I question how effective I am at that. Both classes learn problem solving which is good and both teach that making things is satisfying.

    I think the link works now, I had to edit it three times though to get it to take.

    Yes, I have no experience in "white collar" work unless teaching is considered that, but he did raise interesting points I hadn't thought of. And I do know that many of the people in the knife making world that I follow are part time knifemakers and unhappy full time white collar workers. Of course it raises the question of just what is "white collar" work and I wonder if somebody selling insurance isn't just as satisfied at putting together a good policy as I am making a knife.

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