In high school I had to read a lot of William Faulkner. An ambitious literature teacher fresh from Davidson College introduced us to The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and Light in August in a single semester. Of course it was torture, subjecting the linear teenage mind to such non-linear narration, but something about Faulkner stuck, and one day on winter break, as a storm dropped a thin blanket of snow on Atlanta, I picked up The Reivers.
Suddenly Faulkner changed. So accessible. So clear. So page-turning. I would later read critics who breezily called the Pulitzer Prize-winning book lighthearted, narratively simple, and, for these reasons, atypical Faulkner (“affectingly wistful,” Jonathan Yardley wrote). It was, as they say today, a fun read, maybe (it was implied) too much so for a heavyweight such as the bard from Oxford.
But later in life I returned to Faulkner much in the way you return to the music of your youth. And on closer inspection it struck me that nothing about The Reivers was simple. In fact, the book, a thematic wolf in sheep’s clothing, was (and remains) one of the weightiest road-trip novels ever written. The Reivers, in essence, gets very meta about movement.
The Odyssey, On the Road, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance — these books capture long-duration mobility as a backdrop to drama. But in The Reivers, movement itself is the drama, not to mention the quickening pulse of Yoknapatawpha, a place where, the closer you look, the more the characters materialize by gathering moss.
The book opens with a mobility upgrade. Boon Hoggenbeck steals (reives — it’s a Scottish term) Lucius Priest’s grandfather’s car so he can drive from Jefferson to Memphis to visit a prostitute named Miss Corrie. Before Boon departs, Lucius, aged 11, convinces him to bring him along for the ride. En route, they discover that Ned McCaslin, a black man who tends to Lucius’s grandfather’s horses, is hiding in the back seat. As the car fills with characters, The Reivers indeed becomes affectingly wistful, with Huck Finnish coming-of-age excitement leavening the trip.
Matters become a little heavier in Memphis. Boon drops Lucius at Miss Reba’s brothel and goes searching for his “girlfriend.” Ned, in the plot’s pivotal scene, secretly barters the stolen car — the first car in Yoknawpatapha County (where it’s 1905) — for a horse — “Coppermine” — he plans to train up and race hard at a local track (under the new nom de guerre “Lightening”). With the proceeds, Ned vows to buy back the vehicle and allow the dividends to speak to his considerable equine expertise.
Critics have long characterized The Reviers as a soft critique of modernization. It’s certainly that. Horses and mules haul so many themes around Faulkner’s novels that it seems appropriate for him to grant the beasts an 11-hour paean (this was his last novel), which he does by favorably juxtaposing the car’s defects with the horse’s reliability.
One example stands out. Midway to Memphis, Priest’s hijacked car gets stuck in a mud hole. The men struggle to wedge it out with iron bars and a plank of wood, but the vehicle — “so huge and so immobile” — proves to be “too fixed and foundational.” Defeated, Boon pays the mud hole’s owners a few bucks to have the car dislodged by a couple of mules, animals he later describes as “already obsolete before they were born.”
What follows is as arresting as anything Faulkner ever wrote. In an instant, the car morphs from an icon of progress into a “mechanical toy rated in power and strength by the dozens of horses.” It’s no longer a shiny symbol of a modernizing South, but an instant fossil, something you’d discover in layers of bedrock, an object that’s “helpless and impotent in the almost infantile clutch of a few inches of the temporary confederation of two mild and specific elements — earth and water.” The horse, an animal Faulkner deeply understood, triumphs over the car.
But Faulkner is hunting more substantial game here. He’s after the very morality of movement itself. In Western thought, the link between movement and morality is by no means self-evident or routinely explored. But to migrate, by definition, is to go astray. And to go astray is to err — to be errant — and, in turn, to be flawed, or at least radically open to its possibilities. The Reivers honors this definition, allowing movement to constitute error — personal, historical, collective error — as well as make possible its upshot: redemption.
But error comes first. After the travelers are disengaged from the mud hole, they eat fried chicken and ham and assess the near future. “When we crossed Hell Creek,” Boon explains, “we crossed Rubicon” and “set the bridge on fire.” They feel the frisson of liberation: “the very land itself seemed to have changed…the air was very urban.” Only automotive power — such a novelty in 1905 — allows them to barter the past for a future characterized by “the mechanized, the mobilized, the inescapable destiny of America.”
But such liberation comes at a cost. When the trio eventually finds the main road to Memphis — “running string straight into distance” — the world they once knew blurs into confusion. The geography outside the gunmetal doors — “the Sabbath afternoon, workless, the cotton and corn growing unvexed now, the mules themselves sabbatical and idle in the pastures” — becomes lost to Lucius, who recalls, “I couldn’t look at it…I was too busy, too concentrated.” Hurdling through space in metallic containment quietly erodes a sense of place and the integrity such a feeling nurtures. “It was Virtue who had given up, relinquished us to Non-virtue,” Lucius remembers thinking as the car kicked up dust. “The country itself was gone.”
And then they stop at Miss Reba’s. “You’ll like it,” Boon tells Lucius.
Lucius doesn’t like it. Lucius is horrified. His experiences at the brothel culminate in a coming-of-age sequence that includes a badly cut hand, copious tears, and the tectonic realization that “I knew too much, had seen too much; I was a child no longer now; innocence and childhood were forever lost, forever gone from me.”
But what never leaves Lucius is the potential for redemption. Redemption in The Reivers is embodied in the noble form of the horse. The relationship that Lucius and Ned develop with Lightening — the bartered horse that Lucius eventually rides in two mile-long circles — restores “the country itself” to a non-automotive pace and routine. It’s on the sweaty back of Lightening — a horse maintained with mechanical precision by Ned — that Lucius transcends his fate and recovers his virtue.
The Reivers ends with this moving restoration. On the way to the race, Ned and Lucius must load Lightening onto a train car. Once in the container, the “horse’s hot ammoniac reek…and the steady murmur of Ned’s voice” blend into something “concentrated” and ineffable. Lucius, a nervous wreck about the race, says he “actually realized not only how Lightening’s and my fate were now one, but that the two of us together carried that of the rest of us, too, certainly Boon’s and Ned’s, since on us depended under what conditions they could go back home.”
Lucius and Lightening, when the first ride begins, careen down the track “as though bolted together.” With that unification, all characters return home the wiser, knowing, as Grandpa Priest would soon tell Lucius, “nothing is forgotten.”
Today, more than 50 years after The Reivers was published, a cottage industry exists to teach us to slow down and simplify the hectic pace of contemporary life. Think Shop Class as Soul Craft, You are Not a Gadget, or Last Child in the Woods. It’s easy to dismiss this genre of literature as a wistful — that word—blend of nostalgia and self-help. Reading The Reivers though, saps the impulse to mock. Although Boon is quick to note to that “if all the human race ever stops moving at the same instant, the surface of the earth will seize,” he also learns that slowing life down enough to watching mules on sabbatical can save your soul from the perils of speed.
While living in Germany three years ago, I talked my way into a job teaching high school students how to write fiction – in English. The administrator who hired me, normally a stickler about credentials like any self-respecting German bureaucrat, was willing to ignore the fact that I had never taught anything to anyone. In her eyes, I offered something far more valuable than a teaching certificate or classroom experience. I was a published American novelist. And so… Willkommen!
The dozen sophomores and juniors who’d signed up for the after-school class were fluent in English and able to write solid sentences, but they were initially a bit leery of me. When I tried to get them to create characters from whole cloth, to imagine problems for them, to dream up action that would dramatize how they grappled with those problems, the students balked. For nearly a dozen years they’d been conditioned by a system that rewarded them for doing things the right way. This school was a gymnasium (with a hard g), the highest level of high school, and these students would soon be taking the brutal Abitur, the week-long written and oral exam that makes the American SAT look like a pop quiz and which would determine which of them was worthy of the Holy Grail: a free university education. Understandably, it took these students a while to grasp what I was telling them: when writing fiction there are no right or wrong answers, only good choices and bad ones. This Amerikaner is standing up there telling us we get to make stuff up! Cool! Once they got it, they took to fiction writing the way birds take to the blue.
That experience was very much on my mind as I read In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic, the chilling new book about the travails of an adjunct professor of college English who goes by the pseudonym Professor X. His students, at an unnamed private college and an unnamed community college somewhere in America, could not have been more unlike my German charges. While my high schoolers were gamely writing fiction in a second (and in some cases third) language, Professor X’s college students could barely put together grammatical sentences in their native tongue. The reason was that his students and the people who “prepared” them for college had bought into one of the most common and debilitating American myths – namely, that everyone has an inalienable right to a college education, regardless of their level of academic achievement.
“As my students drift into the classroom each evening,” Professor X writes, “I find myself feeling sorry for them. Many are in over their heads… They lack rudimentary skills; in some cases, they are not even functionally literate… Some are not ready for high school, much less college.”
So what are these people doing in college? Trying to get ahead, of course, trying to position themselves to get their slice of that big gooey pie known as the American Dream. And in one of those snake-eating-its-tail scenarios, as more and more Americans, both qualified and unqualified, enroll in colleges, more and more employers are able to demand that job seekers have some college education, even for jobs that patently do not require it. Professor X calls this “credential inflation” and he explains its existence this way: “There is a sense that our bank tellers should be college educated, and our medical billing techs, our county tax clerks, our child welfare agents, our court officers and sheriffs and federal marshals.”
And so colleges keep growing, enrollments keep expanding, and lowly adjuncts like Professor X toil away in the basement of the ivory tower – with little prestige, no benefits and no hope of tenure. But there is a price attached to this relentless expansionism. “This push for universal college enrollment, which at first glance seems emblematic of American opportunity and class mobility, is in fact hurting those whom it is meant to help,” Professor X writes. “Students are leaving two- and four-year colleges with enormous amounts of debt.”
About a trillion dollars worth, according to Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid and Fastweb, which track student debt. The average debt of college students who took out loans and graduated was $24,000 last year, when student debt outpaced credit card debt for the first time. In 1993, fewer than half of bachelor’s degree recipients graduated with debt; by 2008 the figure had risen to more than two-thirds. “In the coming years,” Kantrowitz says, “a lot of people will still be paying off their college loans when it’s time for their kids to go to college.”
This “debt-for-diploma” system would shock a German because in Germany college tuition is free – that is, it’s paid for with taxes. It’s also available only to those students who have proved, over the course of 12 rigorous years, that they deserve to attend. How utterly un-American. As Professor X writes: “In no other age but our own – idealistic, inclusive, unwilling to limit anyone’s possibilities for self-determination – would some of my students be considered ready for college. They have been abducted into college, sold a bill of goods… Without heaping too much solemnity upon it, college is something that one must ascend to.”
With these simple sentences – and especially with the loaded words inclusive and ascend – Professor X finally lets the cat out of the bag. To suggest that someone should be excluded from college because he or she is not equipped to ascend is to open yourself to the predictable charges of elitism, classism (love that word!) and, quite possibly, sexism and racism. These charges take me back to my teaching experience in Germany. I did not teach at some pricey private prep school; it was an ordinary public high school in a small town outside Cologne, yet the students were no strangers to the concepts of exclusion and ascending – or, if you will, elitism. After fourth grade, all German students are put on one of four tracks on the basis of teacher evaluations: main school, which can lead to a trade school at age 16; intermediate school, which can lead to such mid-level careers as secretary or draftsman; and college-prep comprehensive school or gymnasium, where performance on the Abitur will determine not only who can go on to university but what they’ll be allowed to study once they get there. The system is rigid but not unyielding. It’s possible for high-performing students to rise from one level to the next. But if they don’t perform, they don’t advance. Period.
Professor X does a nice job of explaining exactly why this is so un-American: “First of all, twenty-first-century American culture makes it more difficult to fail people. Our society, for all its blathering about embracing diversity and difference, really has no stomach for diversity and difference when it constitutes disparity. We don’t like to admit that one student may be smarter, sharper, harder working, better prepared, more energetic, more painstaking – simply a better student – than another. So we level the playing field…(but) our quest to provide universally level playing fields has made us reluctant to keep score.”
And he knows first-hand that if you refuse to keep score, if you don’t set standards, if you promote students simply for trying, you will produce mediocrity, or worse. Don’t take Professor X’s word for it. Emily Colette Wilkinson, my fellow staff writer here at The Millions, also spent some time in the basement of the ivory tower trying to teach English to unqualified students. In an e-mail she describes the experience:
Yes, I taught two classes at a community college in Southern California right after I finished my Ph.D. It was a temporary adjunct position for two classes, Advanced Writing and Advanced English Grammar (advanced, in this case, meaning 12th-grade level). They hired me about two days before the semester started and gave me no syllabus or text book or course description for either class. When the “department head” did get in touch with me two weeks after classes had started, he told me not to get my hopes up, that most of them would fail. It didn’t turn out to be most, but it was close, maybe 40 to 45 percent failed. And this was after I’d lowered the bar on the course expectations – in a big way.
The rage and sadness that resulted from this experience – an experience in which I failed as much as most of my student did – was not directed at them. It was directed at the college. The college had failed us all. The other enraging thing was that my students really needed English. I did have three students who were learning, whom I connected with. But if I’d known how deeply demoralizing the whole experience would be, I don’t think I’d have done it, even for them. I was scandalized and enraged by this shitshow masquerading as a school – failing everyone except the incompetent administrators who kept collecting their money from the state of California – the bankrupt state of California, no less – even though the enterprise they were supporting was worse than a joke. I think Professor X is right on the money. Of course there is the other side too: I know people who’ve had community colleges change their lives – set them on the path to become nurses and professors, helped them up the class ladder. But that isn’t what I saw.
A book that can profitably be read in tandem with In the Basement of the Ivory Tower is Matthew B. Crawford’s best-seller from 2009, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. This passionately argued and deftly written little book – part polemic, part manifesto, part philosophical inquiry – questions the values Americans attach to different kinds of work. Crawford, equal parts motorcycle mechanic and philosopher, argues persuasively that there has been a fundamental and disastrous disconnect in American life over the past century: thinking has been divorced from doing. He traces the source of this split to the industrialists of the early 20th century, most notably Henry Ford, whose automobile assembly line helped create the notions of white collar and blue collar – that is, it pitted mental work against manual work.
“These seem to be the categories that inform the educational landscape even now, and this entails two big errors,” Crawford writes. “First, it assumes that all blue-collar work is as mindless as assembly line work, and second, that white-collar work is still recognizably mental in character.” If you still think most white-collar work is mental in character, you have almost surely never seen an episode of The Office or worked in a beige cubicle, as Crawford and I have.
He points out that the American tendency to elevate the status of mental work while devaluing manual work has become institutionalized: “Today, in our schools, the manual trades are given little honor. The egalitarian worry that has always attended tracking students into ‘college prep’ and ‘vocational ed’ is overlaid by 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.”
Again I was transported back to that gymnasium in Germany. Germans demand results while Americans demand opportunity, or, more precisely, the illusion of opportunity. Germans are willing to make determinations that lead to achievement, while Americans insist on freedoms that supposedly will lead to the realization of the individual’s potential. Small wonder that trade schools flourish alongside universities in Germany, or that German tradesmen are respected and well paid while German doctors and CEOs earn a fraction of what their American counterparts earn. In a country that has neither artificially inflated the value of mental work nor artificially debased the value of manual work, the distance between top and bottom is not so great, and the middle class is secure and well cared for. In Crawford’s formulation, Germans have embraced the value of craftsmanship – “the desire to do something well, for its own sake” – because all work done well is valuable.
Another way of saying this is that Germans tend to be serious in ways Americans are not. I don’t mean serious in the sense of humorless, solemn, staid, grim or dour; I mean it in the sense my dictionary defines it, “concerned with important rather than trivial matters,” that is, clear-eyed, willing to set standards and make judgments based on performance, and not inclined to buy into hollow myths.
Serious people would never buy into the most enduring American myths – that everyone deserves a college education; that everyone deserves to own a home, and real estate will always rise in value; that everyone can become president; that your slice of the pie is there for the taking, provided you’re willing to work for it. Those serious Germans, on the other hand, may not believe in pie in the sky yet they enjoy universal health care, excellent mass transit, free college educations for qualified students, six weeks of paid vacation every year, high wages and low unemployment, and many other goodies of a vast social network. And unlike their neighbors in Greece and Portugal – unlike Americans – they tend to live within their means.
People who are not serious, on the other hand, buy houses they can’t afford and run up credit card debt. They let the oil industry write the deep-sea drilling regulations that led to the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico. They don’t insist that their government inspect their commercial airplanes, their levees, their bridges or their food. They rail against taxes and then devote more than half of every tax dollar to military spending. They argue that universal health care and strict environmental laws are evil government intrusions, and that “creationism” should be taught alongside evolution in public schools. They regard Sarah Palin and Donald Trump as valid presidential contenders. All this because the basement of the ivory tower is teeming with illiterates? Well, yes. A society unwilling to demand excellence of its students is unlikely to demand – or get – competence from its government.
It’s no surprise that people so lacking in seriousness would eagerly embrace another myth: that a college education will lead naturally to better-paying, white-collar work, and that that work will be more satisfying and secure than working with your hands. This myth is built on the belief that the rise of technology will require ever-higher levels of education. In fact, new software is reducing the demand for highly educated workers in a growing number of fields, including legal research, medical diagnosis and, yes, even computer chip design.
If your computer seizes up you will probably wind up on the telephone with someone in a cubicle in Bangalore who will sleep-walk you through a trouble-shooting checklist. But if, as Crawford points out, your toilet won’t stop overflowing or you experience severe chest pains, you will have to call on a plumber or a doctor. Some jobs, especially manual ones, can’t be outsourced. That’s why a plumber’s license has started looking very attractive to a lot of people during this recession, including a lot of under- and unemployed college graduates. Conversely, once-coveted advanced degrees have started looking less enticing. According to the Law School Admission Council, law school applications dropped 11.5 percent this year, to the lowest level since 2001. Why? Because young people don’t want to pile up thousands of dollars of debt so they can become unemployed lawyers.
The truth is that most employers who demand a college education of job applicants aren’t terribly interested in what those applicants studied or how well they performed. The corporate recruiter is looking for “pliable generalists unfettered by any single set of skills,” as Crawford puts it before taking us inside the mind of an applicant during a job interview: “He senses that what is demanded of him is not knowledge but rather that he project a certain kind of personality, an affable complaisance… There seems to be a mismatch between form and content, and a growing sense that the official story we’ve been telling ourselves about work is somehow false.”
Or, as Professor X says of college, that it’s all a bill of goods.
None of us – neither Professor X (M.F.A. in creative writing), Matthew B. Crawford (Ph.D. in political philosophy), Emily Colette Wilkinson (Ph.D. in English), nor I (B.A. in English) – are opposed to college education. I dropped out of college after two years, worked a string of brain-killing jobs, then went back and got my degree because I realized, way back in the 1970s, that “credential inflation” meant I would need a degree if I hoped to get even the lowly job I aspired to – as a cub reporter at a small-town daily newspaper. While it gave me nothing that was useful in my job, my liberal arts education did feed and foster my curiosity about the wider world, certainly a valuable asset for a newspaper reporter and absolutely essential for anyone hoping to become a novelist.
So while I don’t regret going to college, I do find myself agreeing with Professor X’s and Wilkinson’s claim that allowing unqualified students into college is a disservice to everyone, especially the students. And as college students struggle to write grammatical sentences while their debt piles up, I join Matthew B. Crawford in asking, “What the hell is going on? Is this our society as a whole, buying more education only to scale new heights of stupidity?”
(Image: graduation caps from whatcouldgowrong’s photostream)
Last week, I offered up the first of two recommendations for books about work. In Life Work, Donald Hall meditates on a life of word-work; contrasting his vocation as a writer – of poems, children’s books, essays, reviews, and letters – with the manual labor of his agrarian ancestors, in whose New Hampshire farmhouse he and his wife Jane Kenyon lived together for 20 years until Kenyon’s death in 1995.
Matthew B. Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work considers work from a different vantage point, i.e., that of a philosopher-academic turned motorcycle mechanic. While both Hall and Crawford describe meaningful work as that which is fully absorbing, Crawford focuses on the manual trades — conscientious problem-solving in a concrete, physical context — as a potential panacea for modern malaise, professional and otherwise. With Shop Class, Crawford is on a mission, and a highly-specific, thoroughly considered one at that. He writes:
I offer my own story here not because I think it is extraordinary, but rather because I suspect it is fairly common. I want to do justice to intuitions that many people have, but which enjoy little public credit […] Perhaps most surprisingly, I often find manual work more engaging intellectually…
I want to avoid the precious images of manual work that intellectuals sometimes traffic in. I also have little interest in wistful notions of a “simpler” life that is somehow more authentic, or more democratically valorous for being “working class.” I do, in fact, want to rehabilitate the honor of the trades, as being choice-worthy work, but to do so from within my own experience, which I find is not illuminated by any of these fraught cultural ideas.
What follows is a compelling argument – stronger, I’d say, than the “inquiry” of the book’s subtitle – that is equal parts memoir, philosophical treatise, history lesson, repair manual, and social commentary. It is an argument for concretion over abstraction, intuition and judgment over rules-based processing, the integration of thinking (intellectual) and doing (manual/physical), agency rather than unfettered “autonomy” (what Crawford calls “freedomism”), the intrinsic value of small-scale, locally-based business models where human-to-human interaction is vital; and a notion of The Good Life that does not rely on the compartmentalization of work and pleasure.
I confess that, with me, Crawford is preaching to the choir on pretty much every point above. The chapter entitled “The Contradictions of the Cubicle” — in which he laments the learned behaviors of talking in circles, evading responsibility, appearance management, and lowering intellectual inquiry to an institutionally established “good enough” — had me nodding and shuddering, as it likely will anyone who’s ever worked in an office. In “To Be Master of One’s Own Stuff,” Crawford questions modern definitions of freedom and asks whether the consumer fantasy of disburdening ourselves – of physical things – is in fact a new kind of enslavement, a loss of agency and embodied-ness relative to our material environment and possessions (manifest in the tyranny of “devices,” which represent disposable reality); all of which I explore, more or less, in a forthcoming essay (to be anthologized in The Late American Novel, edited by our own C. Max Magee).
An easy audience for the arguments, I turned my scrutiny toward Crawford’s finely-articulated and often entertaining prose. You might wonder, how does a philosopher-mechanic express himself? Crawford does indeed move effortlessly among multiple registers of diction and expression. Here’s a passage I particularly enjoyed, from a section where Crawford describes his early education as a gearhead, trying to diagnose his VW Bug:
Volkswagens in particular, as the People’s Car, tend to get passed around like cheap whores, and it is rare to find one that hasn’t been pawed at by a train of users applying more urgency than finesse […] a VW engine may have been subjected to clumsy, boyish innocence, such as my predecessor surely felt in his heart as he ripped open his package from JC Whitney and held the brand-new “high performance” valve springs in his hand […] Or it may be a tale of appalling moral squalor, as when it becomes evident that the previous owner failed to change the oil, like, ever.
In another chapter, Crawford considers the mechanic’s “metaphysical responsibility to the machine and his fiduciary responsibility to its owner” as he works on an ’83 Honda Magna V45:
I smelled something burning, and discovered my pants were on fire. I was standing too close to the propane heater, in between bouts of valve cover jujitsu. The cover was still stuck where it had been a few hours ago. At this point I’d exhausted my entire lexicon of “mother-fucker”-based idioms, and was running perilously low on slurs against the Japanese. I was nearing a familiar point where I’ve descended through every level of madness and despair, and a certain calm takes over. I was reduced now to a more or less autistic repetition of valve cover manipulations I’d long ago determined to be futile, when suddenly the cover just fell out of its trap and lay free in my hand […] This is a common experience, actually […] I used to try to hypnotize myself into a Zen-like state of resignation at the outset. It doesn’t work, not for this Grasshopper. I have my own process, as they say. I call it the motherfucker process.
But ultimately it’s heady, ambitious stuff that Crawford is tackling here. Iris Murdoch is Crawford’s philosophical touchstone throughout: “[A]nything which alters consciousness in the direction of unselfishness, objectivity and realism is to be connected with virtue,” he quotes from Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of Good. Mechanics, Crawford posits, as do other manual tradespeople, work firmly in this realm of objectivity and realism, recognizing and embracing their non-invincible place in the world. “In any hard discipline, whether it be gardening or structural engineering… one submits to things that have their own intractable ways… When your shin gets kicked, whether by a mule or a kick-starter, you get schooled.”
The kind of moral capacity and cognitive capacity that we need to be full human beings — to be “just,” as Crawford puts it — thus grows from problem-solving that exists in situational reality (as opposed to, say, financial-derivatives reality). Moral virtue and intellectual virtue are of a piece, and are born from a kind of humility and attentiveness that develops as a result of confronting “the world as it really is.” “By the mere fact that they [mechanics] stand ready to fix things,” Crawford writes, “as a class they are an affront to the throwaway society. Just as important, the kind of thinking they do, if they are good, offers a counterweight to the culture of narcissism.”
Narcissism. Hmm… simmering in the background of Crawford’s story is another drama, a more personal one, that he refrains from telling, though he drops hints here and there. In a footnote, we learn that he spent his teen years living in a commune (possibly with his mother, though it’s unclear), and in the acknowledgments that his childhood was “weird.” At 16, he “was getting reacquainted” with his father, living with him for the first time in seven years. He relates, and returns to, a story about his father, a mathematical physicist, who said to him one day, apropos of nothing, “Did you know you can always untie a shoelace just by pulling on one end, even if it’s in a double knot?” This story serves as an emblem of abstract, situation-less – as well as impotent, and possibly immoral – thinking for the rest of the book. One can’t help but sense that Crawford’s search for the real, the virtuous, and the selfless is rooted in something quite personal. In describing just what kind of book Shop Class is, perhaps add “quest for healing” to those equal parts.