By President John Garvey
After trading his executive office for a mechanic’s shop, Matthew Crawford explored the value of working with your hands and the integrity of the human worker in the 21st century in his book Shop Class as Soulcraft, reviewed by President John Garvey. -Katie Ward, Tower Staff
Catholics sometimes have trouble getting comfortable with the idea of business. Jesus didn’t seem to care much for commerce. He told the rich young man to give it all up. He gave thousands of people food for free. The vocation of business, it seems, is incompatible with the devout life. A friend of mine observed recently that there are no business people who are saints.
But what about St. Joseph? He was a small businessman. I picture a sign outside his shop — Joseph & Son LLC, Carpentry and Light Hauling. Maybe the problem is that when we think about going into business, we begin with the wrong example. Instead of Goldman Sachs, suppose we start with one of the 30 million small businesses in the United States.
Matthew B. Crawford captures something important about the nobility of this kind of work in his book Shop Class as Soulcraft. After getting a doctorate in political philosophy from the University of Chicago, Crawford spent five months as the executive director of a Washington think tank. In that job, he says, he sometimes worried about being a fraud, thinking but not doing. So he quit to open a motorcycle repair shop. The work taught him the satisfaction that results from manual competence. It can “make a man quiet and easy.”
Crawford argues that the white-collar/ blue-collar distinction — between jobs where you “think” and jobs where you “do” — resulted from the industrial revolution. Factory owners found they could increase production and lower labor costs by breaking jobs into simple steps that required no thought (the assembly line). Decision-making could be concentrated in a few people at the top. This separation of thinking from doing, though, has resulted in the degradation of work.
Students feel pressure to go to college and get white collar jobs to avoid the drudgery of blue collar labor. But their ambition is often mistaken, in two ways. First, trades like engine repair can involve a lot of intellectual work, as any fan of the NPR show Car Talk will testify. Second, many white collar jobs can also be broken down into small, rule-governed activities that a machine can do. Turbo Tax can do my taxes as well as an accountant.
This is why Crawford highlights the “indispensable human element” of work. A job is important because other people need it, not because it requires an advanced degree or belongs to a big company. Small businesses create social value for employees and customers. They make jobs for almost 60 million people, and they make stuff or perform services that communities need (mechanics and plumbers, but also physicians, detectives, and shop owners). By contrast, what Crawford calls “cubicle jobs” often provide services no one needs, like his first job summarizing other people’s research for a digital catalogue company.
Small businesses also create social value for the workers themselves. Crawford finds craftsmanship satisfying because it requires competence and aims at excellence, both of which enable him to participate in the wider community of mechanics. More important, his small business allows Crawford to provide for his family, to whom he dedicates his book. He talks about feeling proud before his wife when customers recognize him in public. His expertise at motorcycle repair even gets him preferential seating at some swanky restaurants. I like to think St. Joseph felt that way when he took Mary out to dinner on a Saturday night.