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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 09/ 2/2009

SPOTLIGHT: The Philosopher Who Wants to Bring Back Shop Class

By Valerie Strauss

If Dr. Matthew B. Crawford were introduced to you as a political philosopher with a PhD from the University of Chicago, you might think, “The guy’s a brain.” Your assessment would likely be cemented when you learned that he is a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.

But if Matthew Crawford were first introduced to you as the owner and operator of Shockoe Moto, a motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, Va., you might have a different reaction. “The guy must be good with his hands,” you might think; traditional “brain power” probably would not enter in your judgment.

That’s probably what I would have thought, until I read Crawford’s book “Shop Class as Soulcraft.” It is a powerful argument in favor of the trades and a new way of looking at the value of work and how American schools prepare young people to become adults.

Crawford argues that the American education system wrongly gave up on teaching young people how to build and maintain things with their hands because it was perceived to be a lesser sort of enterprise than traditional school studies. He said, in fact that he often finds manual work more intellectually stimulating than what he calls “knowledge work.”

It is time to not only bring back shop class (which some schools around the country are doing) and instruction in other trades, he says, but for educators to rethink the life tracks into which they guide students. Office work isn’t for everybody. As you guide your own children into decisions that will affect their adult work lives, it makes sense to listen to Crawford.

Here is a Q & A with Crawford:

Q) How do schools start teaching young people a different notion of valuable work?
A) The place to begin is by interrogating the attitudes that sort of underpin the current educational regime.

You know, I think we have developed the kind of educational monoculture in this country where anyone with halfway decent test scores is getting hustled into a certain track where you end up working in an office.

I think some people, including some who are very smart, would rather be learning how to build things or fix things. Why not honor that?

Q) Why don’t we?
A) One reason we don’t is that we have this dichotomy of knowledge work vs. manual work--as though they are two very different things. So I think one way to begin is by pointing out that the thinking that goes on in the trades is genuinely impressive if we stop to notice it. ..... This isn’t just a school thing. It’s about the culture.

The point of honoring the trades is not so we can pat ourselves on the back for being good egalitarians, but rather noticing what is really there. This [kind of work] does take some real skill and judgment and sort of adaptability and improvisation--and these are all of the kind of features that all of us are looking for in work. But we are looking in the wrong place.

Q) You mean the office?
A) In fact white-collar work can get quite dumbed down in the same way assembly line work did years ago. Everybody was pulling levers. But the work of a plumber, an electrician, or a mechanic can never be procedural. The circumstances to do those jobs changes too much to be reduced to rule following... Sometimes we romanticize white-collar work by presuming it has more intellectual content than it really does. Lots of genuine ‘knowledge work’ gets concentrated in an ever-smaller elite, leaving the rest of us to be clerks. Or it gets installed in some kind of automated process.

Q) Schools do seem to try to push everybody into what you call ‘knowledge work” and the learning environments can become really sterile.
A) Kids themselves sense that it is a fairly contrived learning environment studying for standardized tests. They know a love of learning doesn’t get engaged. For some it does but for many it doesn’t.

The tragedy is that someone who is kind of a mediocre student who goes on to be a C student in college ends up working as a telemarketer. That same guy might have become a crack electrician, more engaged in what he is doing, and probably making more money. But that course isn’t really presented as an option.

Q) Today there is an education push for more people who are good in math and science to become engineers.
A) The push is always more math and science. But it seems like tinkering is what brings a kid alive. At some point you realize you need to learn the math and science in order to get to the bottom of things. But the initial fascination comes from taking things apart. Schools don’t let kids do that.

Every Wednesday The Answer Sheet will throw the SPOTLIGHT on a person, class, idea, test -- or anything else worthy of being featured. Please email The Sheet for the SPOTLIGHT.

By Valerie Strauss  | September 2, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Learning  | Tags:  Matthew Crawford, shop class, the trades  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Stop Sending Sick Kids to School
Next: WHY IT MATTERS: The Montgomery College Furor


This guy is fascinating; I read an article in the NYT Magazine that I believe was adapted from his book. I agree completely with him that there are different kinds of "smart," and that we undervalue certain types of thinking and occupations. Personally, I'm way more excited by the theoretical than the applied, but my husband is exactly the opposite (thus explaining why he's an engineer and I'm not).

My only issue is finding a way to keep shop, etc., from becoming an involuntary dumping ground for the kids who are labeled "dumb." That's what it was when I was in school -- if the administration didn't think you were "college material," you got tracked into shop, home ec, typing, etc. And, unfortunately, often times those tracks were strongly associated with race, economic status, gender, etc.

I love the idea of opening up more opportunities for people to find whatever it is turns them on -- that's what keeps kids in school, keeps people learning and growing throughout their lives. But I don't know how to do that in a way that keeps them as opportunities, instead of pre-judged tracks.

Posted by: laura33 | September 2, 2009 8:14 AM | Report abuse

I'm one of a very few 50 yo women to have taken shop. I'm fortunate to have had parents that were willing to take on the school system, in Texas no less, and demand that their daughter be allowed in. I not only took shop for two years, I took home ec. While I'll never make Norm Abram or Bob Vila look to their laurals, I can do some home repairs and am competant with a sewing machine, too.

Posted by: Arggg | September 2, 2009 9:17 AM | Report abuse

I moved from the mid-west to the east coast about 11 years ago and was surprised to find that the schools in the DC area force kids to choose one of two paths: industry or college. There is no mixing.
When I was in high school, I was one of those math nerds, but was liked by the gear-heads because I took classes like "Small Engine Repair", auto shop, wood shop, etc. Now, many years and a few college degrees later (including graduate degree work at Hopkins) I have to confess that the skilled labor courses I took gave me valuable insight that I applied to my studies and my professional career. I can not emphasize enough the importance of the relationship between the skills learned in the "industrial" courses and the knowledge gained in the "college-bound" courses.
The combination put me significantly ahead of my peers, and provided me with a high level of self reliance.

Posted by: Opt_Eng | September 2, 2009 9:51 AM | Report abuse

I find this fascinating -- my son, who is a doctoral candidate in nuclear physics, does carpentry work in his spare time for fun and fulfillment. His learning style preference is visual, but he says he needs the stimulation of manual work to balance the cerebral.

My daughter, OTOH, prefers kinetic (hands on) learning to either visual or aural -- interestingly, the preferred learning style of 35% of the population, although the last two are the dominant teaching preferences once a kid hits middle school. She was id'd as ADD, but I think it was just to much having to sit still and be talked at for her. She is now a vet tech, hands on working with animals that she loves and excels at. You can't make learning all one thing or the other, you've got to mix it up.

Posted by: johnsondeb | September 2, 2009 10:57 AM | Report abuse

The presumption that education should teach any vocational skills at all is a fairly recent innovation that has absolutely nothing to do with the idea that spawned public education (and likewise had no part in private or religious schools).

I think manual skills are extremly important, and since moving here have been shocked by the absence of basic manual skill among most people I have met. But K-12 is not the place to learn them. Most of these skills are acquired by repetition and practice, like sports skills, and should be treated as such, i.e. extracurricular activities.

Posted by: Wallenstein | September 2, 2009 1:00 PM | Report abuse

This is one of the best articles to ever be published in the Post and it should be reprinted on the front page above the "fold".

As as a student of vocational education who went on to pursue a Ph.D in Political Philosophy, I discovered the connection between "hand & head" at an early age and I have been forever grateful.

Want to lower the "drop-out" rate? Put voc ed classes back into the academic program so that students can make the "hand-head" connection, end their boredom, and feel the pride & accomplishment from their "hand-head" work.

Posted by: mikeconville | September 2, 2009 2:31 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: Wallenstein

"But K-12 is not the place to learn them..."

I am sorry but you are wrong, very wrong. 8- 12 is the perfect place for more reasons that I have the time or space to list here.

I spend 10 years teaching Philosophy in universities and then spent 20 years teaching auto mechanics in a public high school and I can tell you from personal experience that there are many different kinds of intelligence. I can also tell you that there is a profound sort of pleasure to be had from making something or repairing something back to its original working condition or better. These sorts of activities take real thought, concentration, planning and often rethinking when the first attempt fails.

In the twenty years that I taught auto mechanics I had students with all sorts of interests, abilities and learning styles. Many are now successful artisans who make a significant contribution to their communities every day; others are very successful business men and women and still others are graduates of engineering and medical schools with quite a few PhDs in the lot. Finally, quite a few of my students were able to get good paying jobs right out of high school and “work their way through school” so they did not end up with thousands of dollars of debt to go along with their shinny, new degree.

Yes there was always the constant battle with counselors and school administrators who wanted to use the “shop” as a dumping ground and just a many ignorant parents who guided their kids away form these classes. I had a mother call me one day and give me hell because I “encouraged and let” her daughter take auto mechanics. The young woman was a brilliant auto student - she could out diagnose most of her peers. Many parents would rather force their kids off to college rather than face the humiliation of having a blue color worker in the family.

So it is a big social change that we need to see, not just schools reinstating programs that they hurriedly killed so they could have the space and staffing to offer International Baccalaureate programs and this magnet and that magnet. Mom and dad and the neighbors have to see that a trade for a child is not the end of life as we know it.

They might even discover what I discovered, that a PhD in philosophy does not give one as good a chance to eat as does being a skilled auto technician and that each can provide one with a sense of profound accomplishment in many of the same problem solving ways!

Posted by: dotto | September 2, 2009 4:28 PM | Report abuse

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