Minnesota Public Radio recently aired an interview with Matthew Crawford, author of the bestselling book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work. I have read this book and I think Crawford provides learning professionals with a lot to think about.

It’s not possible (for me, at least) to reduce Shop Class to a simple “here’s the point” statement. The book is an exploration of how our work, and our relationship to our possessions contributes (or fails to contribute, as is more often the case) to our sense of fulfillment as people. Along the way, Crawford touches on many other issues related to education, society, and the workplace.

The book does discuss some of what the title most directly implies: our societal view of the so-called “manual trades” and the related decline in the promotion and teaching of the trades as valid and secure ways to make a decent living. Crawford also does a very good job of challenging some of the myths of modern work, for example that there’s no thinking involved in so-called “manual” trades.

One of the main concepts of the book is Crawford’s exploration of individual agency, which is an ability to observe firsthand the effects of one’s actions on the world.

As we’ve marched toward becoming an “information society” of so-called “knowledge workers” our individual agency has rapidly declined. As knowledge workers, our jobs have become largely about doing a piece of a piece of a piece of a part of the whole. In other words, many of us today do work that is largely devoid of individual agency.

This represents an almost total reversal in the millennial-long trend of our development as a species, where we constantly increased both our technology and our individual agency. We used tools of growing sophistication and saw firsthand the product of our labors with these tools. Now that trend seems to be reversing and our relationship to our material possessions and tools is also changing from a position of master to that of servant.

Or let’s be honest, if we’re talking about any device with a power cord, we’re basically slaves.

If the tools of our “information society” fail to work, we’re helpless. If the object is even meant to be repaired at all (a very big “if” these days), our only option is to call a repair professional, or trudge to the dealership or the repair shop (if such an option even exists!) and implore the tradesperson to please, please fix it. Our relationship to our possessions has devolved and in many cases we’ve become more helpless bystander than owner. The start of a reasoned case for the value of the manual trades, perhaps? Read the book!

Shop Class doesn’t really offer solutions, but it provides plenty by way of perspective for HRD professionals. From the intellectual challenges of manual work to an exploration of why concepts like individual agency are so important to our sense of job satisfaction and fulfillment, there’s plenty that HRD professionals can take from this MPR interview and from the book.

Here’s the interview on MPR:

And here’s the book (just out in paperback) on Amazon.

Highly recommended!

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