In 2006, Matthew Crawford, (equipped with a Ph.D. in philosophy, an obvious fan of working with his hands and proprietor of a small business of restoring/maintaining vintage motorcycles), wrote an essay entitled Shop Course as Soul Craft, which was published in Atlantis magazine. A friend of mine, Dave Beach, (who has built and is responsible for a very successful and large activity in the Stanford Engineering School called the Product Realization Lab in which students design and manufacture products), and I found out about it and spread it all around the local community. It covered the advantages of manual skills in life and the importance to individuals, schools, and organizations of encouraging them. I am one of a large number of people who are believers, and who take great pride in their ability to make and fix things and I have seen the positive effects of doing such things on the lives of many other people. I depend on such activities for keeping me from occasionally becoming less likeable from lack of quick feedback and an overdose of mental activities seemingly divorced from reality (yes I am a professor). Dave and I are also both believers, along with many other people, in the contribution of such activities to producing products of high quality.
Crawford's "Shop Course" essay was later developed into a book of the same name, which made a large splash because it made its way to many people of like mind, and coincided with a time of much worry about the inroads computers were making into skilled jobs. If you haven’t read the article or the book, you can find the article here.
Now Crawford has written another book entitled World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, N.Y.). This one is somewhat broader in reach, having to do with our mental attention in an age in which large numbers of individuals and organizations, backed by powerful media, are competing for for this attention, to the point where we may be paying a cost in individuality and in the ability to focus as well on our main interests. His “Shop Class” book was broader in reach than his Atlantis article of the same name, and this book is broader still. I read it and loved it, but it is a more difficult read. Crawford is now a senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, as well as being a fabricator of components for custom motorcycles, and I think he is showing the signs of immersion in an academic scene . It is difficult for academics to write books that are easy to read, because in a university, life consists of communicating with people in similar disciplines and assuming they have similar backgrounds and familiarity with material—in this case philosophy. The result is an understandable tendency to refer to people and works that the general reader has not met or read, nor will probably ever do so. After 50 years of fighting this problem, I know it well. I even run into it at home because I occasionally find myself trying to explain something that is interesting to me, like quantum computing or the working of make-and-break ignition systems or the physical portions of the internet to my wife, who is brilliant, but was trained as an historian, and seems to have little need for techie jargon and details.
But the message in Crawford’s book is straight forward and powerful. He again makes an argument for hands-on contact with the world, He begins with the attack upon our attention from all sides, from advertising to internet communications and seductive digital toys. He then goes into the problems resulting from handling an overload of stimulation by seeing it in terms of broad representations and generalizations rather than reality (“the public”, “government”, “farmers”). He talks about joint, or group attention, its importance, and the increasing difficulty of obtaining it. He worries that we are losing the “real”, by dealing with these generalities and stifling our true nature and individuality in the process. He finishes the main portion of the book by presenting what he considers an example of good focus—an old and traditional pipe-organ company, in which people learn from the experience of others and gain their pleasure from attaining expertise in the building of their products. Once again, the shop.
This book is especially timely since many college students now seem to be trying to stay in contact with an ever increasing quantity of people and changing information and are planning to start companies even though they are equipped with little experience and with a minimum of skills learned through practice. Even some devotees of creativity seem to be swinging away from experience and the learning of skills. I wish them luck. These are invaluable tools in life.
If you are interested in things controversial and in modern trends, I recommend you read this book and that you discuss it with your friends, especially if you are neglecting hobbies or work you love that allow you to get your hands dirty. Dirty hands for me seem to result in a cleaner mind. I recommend them to all.