Jim Rosenau is eager to hear author Matthew Crawford tomorrow night:

With the city looking to reduce protection for industrial land use in West Berkeley, Mrs Dalloway’s hosts an appearance from Matthew Crawford (right) reading from Shop Class as Soulcraft (just released in paperback), the most articulate celebration of manual work in many years.

Here’s what the publisher writes: “Today, shop class has all but disappeared from the mainstream educational landscape, replaced by the necessity of turning everyone into a ‘knowledge worker’. This imperative is based on a misguided assumption that there is a separation of thinking from doing; the work of the hand from that of the mind. Crawford’s book is an inspired manifesto that has restored the honor of the manual trades.”

Having careers in both manual and symbolic work worlds, I was thrilled by the excerpt, The Case for Working With Your Hands, that ran pre-publication in The New York Times Magazine last year. Finally someone had taken the time to explain to the pixel-pushing crowd the intelligence required — and gained from — turning a wrench, swinging a hammer or pinning a hem.

The book, for me, was a mixed blessing. At least half of it was far too abstractly philosophical for my taste. The title and much of the prose read like a dissertation he had to get out of his system. Not my thermos of coffee. Still, the parts that shine made it more than worthwhile.

If your work requires tools and materials more than symbols — words, pixels and numbers — Crawford makes the case for the merit of your work. Hear him out.

Crawford will be at Mrs Dalloway’s, 2904 College Avenue, on Thursday May 13 at 7:30 p.m.

Jim Rosenau makes fine art furniture from books at his studio, This Into That, in West Berkeley

Photo by Robert Adamo.

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  1. I also found the book a little too high poobah for the subject matter, but it did raise important issues.

    One of the most surprising things I experienced as a Berkeley parent was how so much was done for kids. Many of my childrens’ friends never even cleaned their own rooms and instead, waited for the house cleaner to arrive. That always struck me as doing the kids a big disservice in the realm of basic physical competency, not to mention promoting entitlement attitudes.

    Here’s what my kids were forced to do by the time they were 16 (yes, they would have preferred a servant):

    Clean clothes, dishes, floors, toilets, sinks.
    Replace broken panes of glass.
    Cook 3 good meals.
    Sow and plant and tend a garden (the one at home).
    Repair bike brakes, chains, gears and tires.
    Change oil and tires on a car.
    Build a fence and paint a room.
    Solder wire and weld metal.
    Sew a button and a fabric seam.
    Install a computer network.
    Get a job and keep it.

    It’s not surprising that, since so many families outsource physical tasks to others, physical labor has become devalued. I always cringed when the BHS principal insisted that all kids should go to college and failed to support solid vocational programs (while misquoting Marx).

  2. There is another pair of Berkeley authors worth mentioning in this context: George Lakoff and Rafael E. Núñez who wrote “Where Mathematics Comes From”. It is not a perfect book but is pretty good.

    The book develops with respect to mathematics an idea that does not originate with those authors but which they treat well: the concept of embodied intelligence.

    In particular, even our most abstract, most purely logical reasoning (such as math) is ultimately an emergent property of the physiological / pschological capacities we have to understand the operation of our bodies and the relation of our bodies to space and time. That is: even mathematics is a visceral subject. Mathematical truths are ultimately sensible in sensual terms. In math, we are talking about things that, basically, we can feel, see, touch, do, and so forth.

    To their observations, and to what Crawford writes in the linked excerpt, I would add this observation:

    I’ve met a decent number of engineering and science types over the years. In one of those always inevitably oversimplified ways I can divide them, one by one, into two varieties. There are two types of that kind of brain worker:

    There are those who have built lots of stuff, in a variety of media, with their hands – and there are those who are mostly book learning and a few science labs. The latter always talk the more sophisticated, more esoteric, more rhetorically intimidating game. The former are always better at their jobs and more useful in a pinch.

    In my less discrete moments I call these groups “the smart ones” (who, after solving your hard electrical engineering theory problem can go fix their car) and “the effetes” (with the superior book knowledge and more complicated ways of speaking but who know a good mechanic).

    There are some corollaries in my observations. For example, the effetes tend to be more dyspeptic and prone to serious diseases early in life. The smart ones tend to be healthier and happier. The effetes tend to live more precariously but lavishly, economically speaking. The smart ones tend to live more simply and are prone to having a decent chunk of hard, liquid savings later in life. The effetes tend to adopt careful, rationally chosen diets and habits. The smart ones are more likely to smoke and drink and eat what they like while, nevertheless, remaining oddly healthy.

    Such are the stereotypes I have not been able to resist acquiring. Make of them what you will. One more though:

    The effetes are in charge. They hold the bulk of the institutional power with only rare exceptions. The smart ones more likely to have a long string of bitter war stories in the career histories.

    What I think is missing in the excerpt from Crawford (though perhaps its in the book?) is that we ought not just valorize careers based on working with your hands – we ought to eliminate from our minds the distinction between the two kinds of career. When we encounter a CEO or CTO or chief scientist or middle manager who is an effete – we ought to regard that as a deficit, a reason for suspicion. When we find one who is a doer – a smart one – that should be closer to the ideal.

    The financiers won’t hear of it, of course. But, well, look what they’ve done for us lately.