Monday, September 7, 2009

Soulcraft, or the Evolution of the Hemingway Complex?

Today's rebroadcast on The Diane Rehm Show on NPR featured Matthew Crawford, a professor at the University of Virginia and an independent motorcycle mechanic, discusses his book Shop Class as Soulcraft. Crawford's book questions whether college is for everybody, or should some folks go into manual labor fields without the tincture of social disappointment.

Crawford was a philosophy graduate student at the University of Chicago who upon graduation moved into a cubicle. But the call of manual labor was strong in Crawford, so he is now a fellow at the University of Virginia and the owner of a motorcycle repair shop.

It was an appealing conversation and one that is by no means new. Crawford waxed poetic about the feel of taking things apart and putting them together, as if the work is more real and more tangible and more worthy of admiration and pride. He questioned whether the work he performed with his mind in his cubicle job --I believe he said it was for a Washington thinktank-- was as satisfying as taking his motorcycle apart.

Anyone flashing back to Kevin Spacey in American Beauty here?

While I agree that everyone has a different type of intelligence, or aptitudes for different knowledge, and yes, everyone should be given the latitude to make a living in these areas of industry, his argument seems to ignore some obvious facts. Thirty years ago, manufacturing counted as 39% of all jobs in the US. Now it is 9%, so yes, the shop classes are proportionately moving to the wayside. His argument is largely nostalgic, ignoring current trends in the US workplace.

But more than arguing for any particular action in education, Crawford enjoyed discussing how he has balanced a life of intellectual work with a life of manual labor, as though this provides both the money and respect of social circles with the element of rogue manliness he experiences as a motorcycle mechanic.

It all reminded me of my days in graduate school at Florida. A handful of the male students counteracted their careers in reading and writing with a passionate, nay aggressive, fervor for football. The MFAs were constantly performing drunken feats of strength, and the whole thing reminded me of Paul Theroux's essay "The Male Myth" and something he called the Hemingway Complex.

I think Crawford, like many other folks, wonder if they are where they wanted to be in life. At some point during his eight graduate years at the University of Chicago he could have stopped and moved into the motorcycle repair sector. But he didn't. And I don't think it's the fault of the American public school system he seeks to correct.

The love, passion, satisfaction he experiences by working with his hands is nothing more than what we all do. We find outlets. We play sports, we watch football, we repair cars, build bookshelves, knit sweaters, read books, ride horses, whatever it is that we like and makes us feel good. We are multi-faceted individuals who don't necessarily have to do just one thing every hour of everyday to have happy lives.

Essentially, I think this is Crawford's point, though he spoke so lovingly about motorcycle mechanics as being work that matters, and then Diane chimed in with her love of sewing which just made me groan. Yes, I knit, but I like textiles. I like throwing pots too. I also play golf and shoot darts.

In any case, one movie quote came to mind, ironically from Office Space. A sympathetic Jennifer Aniston tells a defeated Ron Livingston, that everybody hates their jobs, but the point is to find something you love and do that.

Of course, at the end of the movie, he has forsaken his software job in favor of construction. Wearing his hard-hat, he looks as happy as a caveman in a field of mastodon.