Working with your hands can make your sense of responsibility, says Matthew Crawford.

Working with your hands can make your sense of responsibility, says Matthew Crawford.

December 1, 2014

Matthew Crawford, author of Shop Class as Soulcraft, says work involving making things or fixing things has a wider cultural significance in combating growing passivity and dependency.

Today, it is harder to be self-reliant, with some high-end cars lacking even a dipstick to check the oil, he told about 100 people Nov. 19 at this year's Cardus Hill Family lecture.

Instead people get an email to remind them, said the Virginia-based motorcycle mechanic and fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. "We can't check our own oil."

The so-called idiot light in a car that would only come on when one was completely uninvolved with car maintenance is becoming a thing of the past.

"Idiocy, or a lack of involvement, gets cast as cultural progress," he said. Things that used to be fixable are no longer so, whether it's washing machines, computers or other devices.

There is a kind of moral education tacit in material culture – things objectively work or they don't work, but increasingly, the modern personality is being "reformed in the direction of passivity and dependence," he said.

"Before the Internet there was the Sears catalogue," he said. "Now let's say your washing machine goes on the fritz."

"Even for a person comfortable with motors, there are layers of electronic crap" in a modern washing machine, he said. "You have to pick your battles. You can't learn everything."

"At times it's easier to send it to the landfill and get a new one, even if the problem could have been fixed with a $20 part," he said.

Even without considering the effects on the environment and on sustainability, there is an effect of "learned helplessness" that "leaves us missing something at the core" of what it means to be human, he said.

That's "individual agency," of seeing the effect of an action and "knowing the action was genuinely your own."

With globalization, Crawford said he worries that "we're becoming stupider."

He contrasted the virtual world of fantasy and competence with that of wiring a house. In the virtual world, there seem to be no direct consequences for one's actions and decisions. But if you re-wore a house improperly, the house will burn down, he said.


Crawford pointed to the popularity of programs on the Discovery Channel that feature people with dangerous or dirty jobs, such as fishermen on the Bering Sea or a man who inseminates turkeys for a living.

These shows depict a "confrontation with reality that is disconnected for most of us," he said.

Matthew Crawford

Matthew Crawford

When one is working in an office, the chain of responsibility is complex, and one can feel insecure on the job, wondering what has been accomplished.

For a carpenter who has a problem with his boss, he merely has to show that the job "is plumb, it's level, it's square," he said. "In an office, you don't have objective standards." It becomes "a paranoid place," where you are "constantly working on other peoples' opinion of you."


A real alternative to the white collar job is the skilled manual trades, he said. Yet in North America, a growing educational monoculture is pressing more and more young people into university.

"Some who are plenty smart would rather be building or fixing things. Why not honour that?" Crawford asked.

The case for working with one's hands includes economic viability, intrinsic satisfaction, work that fits a diversity of dispositions and intellectual challenges, he said.

Increasingly, jobs that require the physical presence of the person doing the work will remain more secure than those that are done "by wire" and can be easily outsourced.

"You can't fix a leaking toilet over the Internet," he said.

Crawford told how he worked for a while as an unlicensed electrician, and how satisfying it was to "flip a switch and see the lights go on."

"Visual competence had a kind of social reality; it was not a subjective thing."

Working with his hands also made him "responsible to my better self" and "to the thing itself," out of "the desire to do something well for its own sake," he said.


Knowing that you've done a job well helps you have "solid ground to stand on with your self-assessment."

"The trades suffer from low self-esteem because the work is dirty," he said. "It's easy to assume that it is also stupid."

Those "who gain real knowledge of real things, of the kind we all depend on every day" deserve "a place of honour to combat the growing passivity and dependency in society," he said.

Cardus, a social policy think tank that draws on Christian social teaching, invited Crawford to speak as part of its Building Meaning project, designed to "make the connection between the dignity of working with one's hands, good jobs and a healthy Canadian economy," according to the Cardus website.

The project aims to restore respect to the skilled trades through a series of roundtables, interviews with industry and political leaders, media connections and an awareness campaign.