The Case for Working with Your Hands

In 2009, Matthew B. Crawford released his book Shop Class as Soul Craft. Twelve years later, I still haven’t read the book, but have returned to this adapted essay many times and have recommended it to several friends and colleagues. There’s so much wisdom and interesting ideas and the writing is beautiful.

High-school shop-class programs were widely dismantled in the 1990s as educators prepared students to become “knowledge workers.” The imperative of the last 20 years to round up every warm body and send it to college, then to the cubicle, was tied to a vision of the future in which we somehow take leave of material reality and glide about in a pure information economy. This has not come to pass. To begin with, such work often feels more enervating than gliding. More fundamentally, now as ever, somebody has to actually do things: fix our cars, unclog our toilets, build our houses.

When we praise people who do work that is straightforwardly useful, the praise often betrays an assumption that they had no other options. We idealize them as the salt of the earth and emphasize the sacrifice for others their work may entail. Such sacrifice does indeed occur — the hazards faced by a lineman restoring power during a storm come to mind. But what if such work answers as well to a basic human need of the one who does it?

As the son of working class immigrants (Mom was a waitress; Stepdad a cook in the same restaurant), I grew up surrounded by family who worked with their hands, usually in food service but also in manufacturing and automotive repair.

None of them spoke English and they didn’t have education beyond high school, so the job opportunities were very limited. My Mom and her siblings led very hard lives, both in Taiwan and when they emigrated to the USA. Everyone lived paycheck-to-paycheck and everyone had lots of debt. Only one aunt, the one who retired from the Post Office, ever had a pension or even a 401(k).

Their kids, however, did much better — all went to university and sometimes grad or law school. It was an unspoken rule that we should not pursue our parent’s path because their sacrifices were made so that we could have more choices in life. The “better choices” were inevitably white-collar office jobs.

A gifted young person who chooses to become a mechanic rather than to accumulate academic credentials is viewed as eccentric, if not self-destructive. There is a pervasive anxiety among parents that there is only one track to success for their children. It runs through a series of gates controlled by prestigious institutions. Further, there is wide use of drugs to medicate boys, especially, against their natural tendency toward action, the better to “keep things on track.” I taught briefly in a public high school and would have loved to have set up a Ritalin fogger in my classroom. It is a rare person, male or female, who is naturally inclined to sit still for 17 years in school, and then indefinitely at work.

When it came time for college, I chose to major in politics and economics as a sort-of “pre-law” student, with a side interest in journalism. This appeared at the time to be a natural, logical step for someone of my interests and abilities.

(Years later, a lawyer who was quitting his job to pursue a Ph.D in history gave me some of the best insight about lawyering ever: people are attracted to the law because it seems respectable and well-paying and safe. But the majority are doing it because they are too scared to pursue what they really want to do. So one pursues entertainment law rather than pursuing acting and another goes into sports law because they’re too chicken to be a full-time athlete.)

In retrospect, what seemed logical at the time looks more like a failure of imagination — and courage — a few decades later. What felt like a deeply considered choice to attend university was really just mindlessly marching down the path of what I thought someone like me should be doing Not surprisingly, after I got into a prestigious university (just barely), my grades tanked. My heart was never truly in it.

I really should have taken a gap year traveling or worked for a few years as a cop or a train operator or a plumber. But the idea of a gap year was entirely foreign to anyone in my family or any of my friends. After you finished high school, you either went to college or you went to work. And work was definitely the lesser of the choices.

We just didn’t know other options existed.