On May 21,2009, Matthew B. Crawford published an article in The New York Times Magazine titled, “The Case for Working With Your Hands.” Later that month, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work arrived on my desk at work.

Three paragraphs down in the New York Times piece, Crawford describes our situation:

“High-school shop-class programs were widely dismantled in the 1990s as educators prepared students to become “knowledge workers.” The imperative of the last 20 years to round up every warm body and send it to college, then to the cubicle, was tied to a vision of the future in which we somehow take leave of material reality and glide about in a pure information economy. 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.”

The deeper issue he addresses here is this: we used to be a nation of makers. In the 1950s our country was heralded for the quality of the cars we produced. Our ________’s (insert your product/s of choice) were considered the best in the world. We made clothes and we consumed them. We made products and exported them.

However, at some point along the way, we began to view these maker/manufacturer occupations as unglamorous and undesirable. This was reflected by the de-emphasis of hands-on learning programs, like shop classes.

Crawford writes in his article:

“The trades suffer from low prestige, and I believe this is based on a simple mistake. Because the work is dirty, many people assume it is also stupid.”

I believe that dirty work makes us smarter. I believe in the art of making. Granted, I am a child of the 1960s—that era when all things seemed possible. I am born of a time when we were a nation of makers—and proud to make. Alabama Chanin, The School of Making, our artisans, our employees, and our community, we believe in action; we still believe in the act of making. In the coming weeks, we will announce details of a new partnership with Nest that centers on how the act of making can be used to foster wide-sweeping change in communities—starting right here in our own building.

Shop Class as Soulcraft isn’t Alabama Chanin’s story—and our point of view doesn’t always align with Crawford’s. But, the book gave me a framework to talk about my belief in making—at a very important time in my own journey. It gave credence to the idea that I was advancing worthwhile cause—and it continues to do so today. To me, the book is a poem about understanding the physical world around me and embracing the process of learning and DOING.

And while the act of repairing a motorcycle is the basis for this story, the book is not Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; however, it is an inquiry into what we value and why.


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Click to read 10 comments
  1. Amber

    This week’s Radio Lab episode addresses this too in an interview done with the man who created/hosted the “Dirty Jobs” reality show. He made a lot of the same points.

  2. Amber

    There is also an archived hour long Diane Rhem interview with Matthew Crawford available on her website

  3. annette

    I loved this book when it came out, and have re-read it since. So well-written and accessible, yet pretty radical ideas for today’s education system which is often very one-track, college-focused. Makes a fantastic basis for discussing the big picture of education, happiness, community. Thanks to the previous commenter for the interview link!

  4. Linda

    As a child of the 60’s and owner of a sewing business (draperies and such) this topic is fascinating and so relevant. Thank you for sharing it.

  5. Anya

    With the commodities being produced abroad and so cheeply people don’t value ” makers” that much. Even though it seems there are many successful sellers on Etsy I am afraid to think about opening a business of making.

  6. Francesca

    This is so relevant to me, that book is now on my wishlist. I come from a generation where home economics wasn’t a subject in school anymore, we thought of home economics as something outdated, something our parents and grandparents did at school. It made us think of a bygone time when genders were very strictly defined and good little girls learned how to embroider and mend clothes and good little boys learned how to make tables. But honestly, I would have loved to learn how to do both, the sewing and the building furniture! I have went on to learn how to knit and I am better than the average of my friends at mending my own clothes, and it does feel empowering to know that I don’t have to rely on stores if I wan’t a new cardigan, I don’t have to rely on cheap fast fashion, or wait till my size is available online, I can make my own, exactly the way I want it and in the size I need it. It’s a great feeling!

  7. Yvonne

    Crawford’s book is a fantastic read for many of the reasons stated here and an eye-rolling one for a few others. And there’s a definite distaste for “women’s work”–whatever form it may take, and even when it’s done by men–that permeates sections of the book, the occasional bone tossed to female readers aside. Kelefa Sanneh did a thoughtful and thorough review for the New Yorker when the book was released that’s a terrific complement to the book: