‘The Case For Working With Your Hands’: book review

The Case For Working With Your Hands Matthew Crawford

I recently finished reading a book recommended by my soon-to-be teacher David Savage, called: The Case For Working With Your Hands or Why Office Work is Bad For Us And Fixing Things Feels Good. The convoluted and slightly clunky title belays author Matthew Crawford’s nuanced argument and perceptive analysis within.

Hoping to gain a head start on my upcoming year-long furniture making course while I tied up loose ends with my office job and planned to move overseas, I asked my teacher for a list of books he’d recommend. At the top of the list of about 15 books – mostly about timber, joinery, cabinetry, etc. – was The Case For Working With Your Hands, which instantly caught my attention. It was at the top of the list for good reason, as many of David’s pupils come from similar backgrounds to mine (i.e. white-collar professionals).

If I hadn’t already made up my mind to undertake this career change, then this book would have been the final straw. It managed to crystalise so many subconscious thoughts and feelings I’ve harboured over the past couple of years in an eloquent yet matter-of-fact fashion.

The author, Matthew Crawford, has a PhD in the history of political thought, was an executive director of a Washington ‘Think Tank’ and has held various office jobs along the way. However, if you stopped him on the street and asked him what he ‘did’, he’d probably tell you he was a motorcycle mechanic. He’s seen both sides of the coin when it comes to approaches to work and so he gives a balanced account of both and generally avoids what would otherwise be tempting – to romanticise the trades and/or be overly acerbic towards white-collar work.

As a general note, while is it easier for the purposes of argument to categorise work into ‘white collar’ or ‘knowledge’ versus ‘the trades’ or ‘manual’ work, Crawford provides a compelling argument as to why this perceived dichotomy is a misconception. He presents “insights to help explain why work that is straightforwardly useful can also be intellectually absorbing”. He even suggests that that there is evidence that “the new frontier of capitalism lies in doing to office work what was previously done to factory work: draining it of its cognitive elements”.

In the introduction, Crawford says that two ideals that find their centre in modern life are the overlapping territories of “meaningful work” and “self-reliance”, and that these two ideals are tied to the struggle for individual agency. He goes on to say;

“When we view our lives through the lens of this struggle, it brings certain experiences into sharper focus. Both as workers and as consumers, we feel we move in channels that have been projected from afar by vast impersonal forces. We worry that we are becoming stupider, and begin to wonder if getting an adequate grasp on the world, intellectually, depends on getting a handle on it in some literal and active sense.”

In one of my earlier posts I talked about my dwindling lack of ‘handiness’ and the author too describes this, pointing out that today’s modern workers of what he calls “new capitalism” are “pliable generalists unfettered by any single set of skills”. Aligning with my own recent experience of a kind of undercurrent of indirect snobbery towards the trades, he says:

“Today, in our schools, the manual trades are given little honour. The egalitarian worry that has always attended tracking students into ‘college prep’ and ‘vocational ed’ is overlaid with another: the fear that acquiring a specific skill set means that one’s life is determined. In college, by contrast, many students don’t learn anything of particular application; college is the ticket to an open future. Craftsmanship entails learning to do one thing really well, while  the ideal of the new economy is to be able to learn new things, celebrating potential rather than achievement. Somehow, every worker in the cutting-edge workplace is now supposed to act like an “intrapreneur”, that is, to be actively involved in the continuous redefinition of his own job.”

In an example of how wide-ranging, but no less interesting, Crawford’s scope of reasoning can be, he links the disciplined, routine office work that many now feel is the necessary harness they must bear to meet repayments, to the innovation of ‘consumer debt’ in the early twentieth century. He references American cultural historian Jackson Lears, who argued that:

“…through the installment plan, previously unthinkable acquisitions became thinkable, and more than thinkable: it became normal to carry debt. The display of a new car bought on installment became a sign that one was trustworthy”.

Indeed, Crawford supports Lears’ view, quoting Benjamin Franklin (“admittedly no Puritan”) with the motto “be frugal and free”. Crawford goes on to argue that “the early twentieth century saw the moral legitimation of spending in a wholesale transformation of the old Puritan moralism”.

The author is not decrying the concept of debt – which is a useful and necessary tool in a modern economy – rather, he is pointing to how office work is perhaps more conducive to being manipulated by the perverse machinations of debt.

I’ve only touched on a couple of chapters from more than 10, and it feels like underselling not to delve into all of them, so I’ll use my future posts as an excuse to revisit Crawford’s book. I’ll finish with another of his quotes, which references one of my favourite TV shows, The Office:

“The popularity of Dilbert, The Office, and any number of other pop-culture windows on cubicle life attests to the dark absurdism with which many Americans have come to view their white-collar work. Absurdity is good for comedy, but bad as a way of life. It usually indicates that somewhere beneath the threshold of official notice fester contradictions that, if commonly admitted, would bring on some kind of crisis.”

Crisis? Career Change? Same thing, right…?

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