Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Shop Class as Soulcraft, by Matthew Crawford

In this entertaining book, Crawford positions building or repairing things as a noble alternative to - well, whatever it is that knowledge workers do.

There are several quotable nuggets: "... some diagnostic situations contain so many variables, and symptoms can be so under-determining of causes, that explicit analytical reasoning comes up short." [p27] That certainly describes many software problems.

Crawford suggests that one needn't abandon a virtual profession to work with one's hands, as he did, a PhD who operates a motorcycle repair shop. To that end: "So what advice should one give to a young person? If you have a natural bent for scholarship; if you are attracted to the most difficult books out of an urgent need, and can spare four years to devote yourself to them, go to college. ... But if this is not the case; if the thought of four more years sitting in a classroom makes your skin crawl, the good news is that you don't have to go through the motions and jump through the hoops for the sake of making a decent living. Even if you do go to college, learn a trade in the summers. You're likely to be less damanged, and quite possibly better paid, as an independent tradesman than as a cubicle-dwelling tender of information systems or low-level 'creative.' To heed such advice would require a certain contrarian streak, as it entails rejecting a life course mapped out by others as obligatory and inevitable." [p53]

Crawford is no less critical of the self esteem movement: "The educational goal of self-esteem seems to habituate young people to work that lacks objective standards and revolves instead around group dynamics. ... The more children are praised, the more thy have a stake in maintaining the resulting image they have of themselves; children who are praised for being smart choose the easier alternative when given a new task. They become risk-averse and dependent on others." [p158]

And, "Children who enjoy drawing... some were rewarded for drawing ... whereas for others the issue of rewards was never raised. Weeks later, those who had been rewarded took less interest in drawing, and their drawings were judged to be lower in quality, whereas those who had not been rewarded continued to enjoy the activity and produced higher-quality drawings. The hypothesis is that the child begins to attribute his interest, which previously needed no justification, to the external reward, and this had the effect of reducing his intrinsic interest in it." [p194 - 195, referring to Lepper, Greene and Nisbett]

Does Crawford take an unfair, one sided view of things? You betcha. I suspect it is quite deliberate; he needs to push hard to compensate for thousands of business management articles.