RSS
The last word: The philosopher with a wrench
As white-collar opportunities dry up, people need to consider other career paths. For former scholar Matthew Crawford, that meant becoming a motorcycle mechanic.
T

his is a moment when the useful arts have an especially compelling economic rationale. The imperative of the last 20 years to round up every warm body and send it to college, then to the cubicle, is tied to a vision of the future in which we somehow take leave of material reality and glide about in a pure information economy. But this has not come to pass. To begin with, such work often feels more enervating than gliding. More fundamentally, now as ever, somebody has to actually do things: fix our cars, unclog our toilets, build our houses. As the Princeton economist Alan Blinder has argued, the crucial distinction in the emerging labor market is not between those with more or less education, but between those whose services can be delivered over a wire and those who must do their work in person or on-site. The latter will find their livelihoods more secure against outsourcing to distant countries. As Blinder puts it, “You can’t hammer a nail over the Internet.”

The trades suffer from low prestige. But I believe this is based on a simple mistake. Because the work is dirty, many people assume it is also stupid. This is not my experience. I have a small motorcycle-repair business in Richmond, Va., that I started after finishing a Ph.D. in political philosophy several years ago at the University of Chicago. I have found the satisfactions of the work to be very much bound up with the intellectual challenges it presents.

I turned full time to repair work several years ago after briefly serving as executive director of a policy organization in Washington. Landing the think tank position felt like a coup at the time. But certain perversities became apparent as I settled into the job. The organization had taken certain positions, and there were some facts it was more fond of than others. As its figurehead, I was making arguments I didn’t fully buy myself. Further, my boss seemed intent on retraining me according to a certain cognitive style—that of the corporate world, from which he had recently come. This style demanded that I project an image of rationality but not indulge too much in actual reasoning.

To me, there seems to be more real thinking going on in the bike shop than there was in the think tank. In fixing motorcycles you come up with several imagined trains of cause and effect for manifest symptoms, and you judge their likelihood before tearing anything down. This imagining relies on a mental library that you develop. As in any learned profession, you just have to know a lot. An internal combustion engine can work in any number of ways, and different manufacturers have tried different approaches. Each has its own proclivities for failure. You also develop a library of sounds and smells and feels. For example, the backfire of a too-lean fuel mixture is subtly different from an ignition backfire.

There is always a risk, when repairing a motorcycle, of introducing new complications. This too enters the diagnostic logic. Imagine you’re trying to figure out why a bike won’t start. The fasteners holding the engine covers on 1970s-era Hondas are Phillips head, and they are almost always rounded out and corroded. Do you really want to check the condition of the starter clutch if each of eight screws will need to be drilled out and extracted, risking damage to the engine case? The factory service manuals will tell you to be systematic to eliminate variables. But they present an idealized image of diagnostic work; they never take into account the risks of working with old machines. So you put the manual away and consider the facts before you. You do this because ultimately you are responsible to the motorcycle and its owner, not to some procedure.

Some diagnostic situations contain so many variables that there comes a point where you have to step back and get a larger gestalt—have a cigarette and walk around the lift. At that moment, the gap between theory and practice stretches out in front of you. What you need now is the kind of judgment that arises only from experience; hunches rather than rules.

The habits of mind you develop in a motorcycle shop have a particular ethical dimension as well. Good diagnosis requires attentiveness to the machine, almost a conversation with it, rather than assertiveness, as in the position papers produced on K Street. The slap of worn-out pistons hitting their cylinders can sound a lot like loose valve tappets, so to be a good mechanic you have to be constantly open to the possibility that you may be mistaken. This is a virtue that is at once cognitive and moral. It seems to develop because the mechanic, if he is the sort who goes on to become good at it, internalizes the healthy functioning of the motorcycle as an object of passionate concern.

Such concern is reinforced by the social aspects of my job. As is the case with many independent mechanics, my business is based entirely on word of mouth. Also, I sometimes barter services with machinists and metal fabricators. This has a very different feel than transactions with money; it situates me in a community. The result is that I really don’t want to mess up anybody’s motorcycle or charge more than a fair price.

A mechanic also must contend with the possibility of vivid failure. I once accidentally dropped a feeler gauge down into the crankcase of a Kawasaki Ninja that was practically brand-new, while performing its first scheduled valve adjustment. I escaped a complete tear-down of the motor only through an operation that involved the use of a stethoscope, another pair of trusted hands, and the sort of concentration we associate with a bomb squad. When finally I laid my fingers on that feeler gauge, I felt as if I had cheated death. I don’t remember ever feeling so alive as in the hours that followed. Often as not, however, such crises do not end in redemption. Moments of elation are counterbalanced with real failures. One reason that the manual trades elicit heedful absorption in work is the tradesman’s keen awareness of catastrophe as an always-present possibility.

Contrast all of the above with the experience of being a middle manager. This is a stock figure of ridicule, but the sociologist Robert Jackall spent years inhabiting the world of corporate managers, conducting interviews; he poignantly describes the “moral maze” they feel trapped in. Like the mechanic, the manager faces the possibility of disaster at any time. But in his case these disasters feel arbitrary; they are typically a result of corporate restructurings, not of physics. A manager has to make many decisions for which he is accountable. Unlike an entrepreneur with his own business, however, his decisions can be reversed at any time by someone higher up the food chain (and there is always someone higher up the food chain). It’s important for your career that these reversals not look like defeats, and more generally you have to spend a lot of time managing what others think of you. Survival depends on a crucial insight: You can’t back down from an argument that you initially made in straightforward language, with moral conviction, without seeming to lose your integrity. So managers learn the art of provisional thinking and feeling, expressed in corporate doublespeak, and cultivate a lack of commitment to their own actions. Nothing is set in concrete the way it is when you are, for example, pouring concrete.

Now, it is probably true that every job entails some kind of mutilation. I used to work as an electrician and had my own business doing it for a while. As an electrician you breathe a lot of unknown dust in crawl spaces, your knees get bruised, your neck gets strained from looking up at the ceiling while installing lights or ceiling fans, and you get shocked regularly, sometimes while on a ladder. Your hands are sliced up from twisting wires together, handling junction boxes made out of stamped sheet metal, and cutting metal conduit with a hacksaw. But none of this damage touches the best part of yourself.

The character of work doesn’t figure much in public debate. Labor unions address such important concerns as workplace safety, government monitors employment levels, and management looks for greater efficiency. Yet the dominant interests are mute on the nature of work, even though it forms us, and deforms us, with broad public consequences.

One example: The visceral experience of failure seems to have been edited out of the career trajectories of gifted students. It stands to reason, then, that those who end up making big decisions that affect all of us don’t seem to have much sense of their own fallibility, and of how badly things can go wrong even with the best of intentions (like when I dropped that feeler gauge down into the Ninja). In the boardrooms of Wall Street and the corridors of Pennsylvania Avenue, I don’t think you’ll see a yellow sign that says “Think Safety!” as you do on job sites and in many repair shops, no doubt because those who sit on the swivel chairs tend to live remote from the consequences of the decisions they make.

Perhaps we should be encouraging all gifted students to learn a trade, if only in the summers, so that their fingers will be crushed once or twice before they go on to run the country. There is good reason to suppose that responsibility has to be installed in the foundation of your mental equipment—at the level of perception and habit. There is an ethic of paying attention that develops in the trades through hard experience. It inflects your perception of the world and your habitual responses to it.

But the trades do not have to be an apprenticeship to something else. The good life comes in a variety of forms. This variety has become difficult to see; our field of aspiration has narrowed into certain channels. But the current perplexity in the economy seems to be softening our gaze. Our peripheral vision is perhaps recovering, allowing us to consider the full range of lives worth choosing. For anyone who feels ill-suited by disposition to spend his days sitting in an office, the question of what a good job looks like is now wide open.

From the book Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford. ©2009 by Matthew Crawford. Excerpt published by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.

EDITORS' PICKS

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

Subscribe to the Week