'Shop Class as Soulcraft' Author Champions Do-It-Yourself Approach to Life

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 26, 2009

RICHMOND -- Matt Crawford, philosopher and gearhead, author of the surprise bestseller "Shop Class as Soulcraft," is in his one-man motorcycle repair shop. It's late on a Friday afternoon. He's draining a can of Miller Lite. He's got a shop full of problems, this 1976 Honda CB-550, that 1967 BMW R50/2, the 1984 Yamaha FJ-1100 on the lift.

He's a brainiac, this slender 43-year-old with the ropey veins lacing his forearms, the brown hair and the soft voice. Grew up on a California commune, got a doctorate in political philosophy from the University of Chicago. Once had an academic office next to J.M. Coetzee, the Nobel laureate in literature. Former executive director of the George C. Marshall Institute on K Street. Currently a fellow at the University of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

But never mind all that. He's onto something big in "Shop Class," something about how the national culture has gotten so disdainful of physical labor that it is losing some basic precepts of how to live a contented (and competent) life. The book was released last month and has already sold about 25,000 copies in hardcover. It has been among the top 25 on the New York Times bestseller list.

"There's this false dichotomy out there between intellectual work and manual work," he's saying. "The popular image of the plumber is just the butt crack," not that of a skilled tradesman who sets his own hours, figures out complex problems on the fly and probably earns more than most of his clients. Plus, there's that satisfaction of imposing one's will and intellect on the physical world, to immediate effect.


But shop classes are disappearing from high schools, Crawford laments, replaced by computer labs. Nobody knows how to fix anything anymore. People want to be "knowledge workers" with college degrees who sit in cubicles, looking down on the tradesmen who make the undergirdings of their lives possible. Vacuum cleaners no longer come with the schematics; who wants them? Some new Mercedes-Benz cars do not have dipsticks, making it difficult for the owner to carry out the simple task of maintaining the oil level.

"We now like our things not to disturb us," he writes. And: "We view human beings as inferior versions of computers."

He's not being an anti-intellectual knucklehead, and he's not extolling the proletarian values of digging a ditch. He's talking about manual competence, of being able to do things with our hands as well as our minds.

He's hitting a nerve, at least in some parts of the country. Nielsen BookScan reports that two-thirds of his sales are in the suburbs.

"A lot of people in white-collar activity can often feel a distance from . . . a craft or some kind of work that you can put some aspect of yourself into," says Joshua J. Yates, associate director of the institute at U-Va., who helped select Crawford for the program four years ago. "It ebbs and flows in the culture, but there's clearly a resonance to what he's found and been able to articulate."

So let's see the man himself at work.

Let's walk across the shop floor with Crawford to this 1967 BMW, a vintage piece of two-wheeled Bavarian engineering. Customer brought it in, it hadn't run for years. Didn't even know why. Among other problems, the bike's exhaust pipe had been taken off, but the connection between the pipe and the cylinder head had been mangled in the process.

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