GUY RAZ, host:
If John Calvin's philosophical source was Scripture, Matthew Crawford's is the toolbox.
In 2000, Crawford left the University of Chicago armed with a Ph.D. in political philosophy and headed to Washington, D.C., to head up a think tank, the Marshall Institute. But after five months, he gave it all up to fix motorcycles.
Matthew Crawford no longer wears the shackle of a Windsor knot. These days, he's partial to faded, black t-shirts and weathered work boots, and you can find him tinkering away on a vintage BMW motorcycle at his repair shop.
Mr. MATTHEW CRAWFORD (Author, "Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work): Just removing this exhaust system. It's old and rusty, and sometimes, it needs a little bit of coaxing.
RAZ: When you see a bike like this, are you a hundred percent confident you can get it working?
Mr. CRAWFORD: No. No, it's always a bit of trepidation when you start getting into something, and in fact, this bike is kind of kicking my butt right now with electrical problems.
RAZ: Seven years ago, Matthew Crawford opened Shockoe Moto in Richmond, Virginia, far from his old life in Washington. He discovered that working at a think tank doesn't require that much thought. His philosophy now: The trades can and do involve intense thought, the sort of intellectual pursuits that many white collar jobs can't promise.
Matthew Crawford explores those ideas in his new book, "Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work." It's a kind of 21st century update to Robert Pirsig's classic, "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance."
I visited Matthew Crawford at his garage earlier this week. We sat in the fresh air, just steps away from the Hondas, Yamahas and Triumphs that lured him away from office life.
When you received your doctorate degree, how did you expect your career path to kind of unfold?
Mr. CRAWFORD: I went in to grad school because I wanted to read some difficult books, and I wanted some guidance reading them. But when I graduated, it really seemed like the job market was rough, and, you know, I had never developed a really sincere aspiration to be a professor.
RAZ: But you had to (unintelligible).
Mr. CRAWFORD: Yeah, make a buck, yeah. And so I ended up landing a job at this think tank in Washington, and it was - yeah, that was very exciting when I got it. But after being there a few months, it started to look like to continue on there would require kind of putting my own honor and credibility in the service of something I didn't fully believe in.
RAZ: You've written that you found that there's more thinking that takes place in a bike shop than at a think tank.
Mr. CRAWFORD: There's more thinking in the sense of more improvisational, having to kind of rethink what you thought you knew because, in fact, the bike won't start.
(Soundbite of laughter)
So you went in with a very strong hypothesis, maybe. It turns out to be wrong. You have to be constantly open to the possibility that you may be mistaken.
RAZ: So you go - and you work for this think tank in Washington. You last five months.
Mr. CRAWFORD: Yeah.
RAZ: Did people at that think tank say you're crazy?
Mr. CRAWFORD: It did make for some awkward moments at cocktail parties or something, where someone would ask what I do, and I say I fix motorcycles, and there would often be this moment of silence.
I think what maybe made it awkward is that the other person would be feeling slight embarrassment, and I would be feeling pride, and the two just didn't quite match up.
RAZ: I'm sort of curious to get a sense of the connection between what you studied and what you do now.
Mr. CRAWFORD: If philosophy is the art of thinking and the love of thinking, then there's very much a connection. People sometimes assume that if the work is dirty that it must be stupid as well, and it's just not my experience. I found myself intellectually challenged all the time fixing motorcycles.
You know, people have different dispositions in terms of learning. Anyone with sort of halfway decent test scores is getting hustled into a certain track, where you end up working in an office, and I think it just bears pointing out that some people, including some who are very smart, would rather be learning to build things and fix things and take them apart, figure out how they work.
RAZ: I mean, your book essentially makes the case that our education system decided to stop teaching things like metal shop and wood shop and essentially started to prepare students for the knowledge-based economy, and that, to you, was a mistake.
Mr. CRAWFORD: Because of that, we've developed an educational monoculture, where there's only, kind of one respectable course, and it takes a real contrarian streak to sort of live more deliberately and make these calls for yourself.
RAZ: There's something that you write that I wanted to read to you, and it's on page three:
(Reading) The trades and manufacturing have long been lumped together in the mind of the pundit class as blue collar.
Couldn't someone make the argument that you're sort of doing the reverse with the white collar class?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CRAWFORD: Well, there's some interesting arguments made by economists. I'm not an economist. I'm just repeating these things - that we learn that anything that can be put on a container ship will be manufactured wherever labor is cheapest.
So, you know, and as a result, the manufacturing in this country has really been hurt pretty badly. Well, this - a similar logic has emerged for the products of intellectual labor that they can be delivered over a wire. So what an architect does, accountants, programmers, even radiologists - and so the emerging distinction in the labor market, according to some economists, is not between those with more and less education, it's between those who have to do their work onsite versus those who'd have some service that can be delivered over a wire.
RAZ: And you actually quote the Princeton economist, Alan Blinder, and I'm paraphrasing here. It was something like: You can't hammer a nail over the Internet.
Mr. CRAWFORD: Exactly, and the Indians can't fix your car for you because they're in India. So what that means is that work that is done onsite has a certain safety from that logic of outsourcing.
RAZ: So many people in this country work in cubicle and actually work in that sort of Dilbert world that you describe. If there's so much dissatisfaction in the American workplace, what do you think needs to happen for people to develop more satisfaction? What do they do?
Mr. CRAWFORD: The point is not that you're going to be fulfilled. The point is not follow your bliss. The point is find some work where you can make yourself useful to other people in a straightforward way that engages your own judgment and thinking so that your actions feel like they're genuinely your own.
RAZ: So would you say you're fulfilled?
Mr. CRAWFORD: Fulfillment would be too strong a word. The work is often very frustrating. There's a lot of cursing involved, and then there are moments of elation when you solve some problem, and it's just like, you just feel like you're three inches taller or something.
RAZ: Matthew Crawford is a philosopher and a mechanic and the author of the new book, "Shop Class as Soulcraft."
Mr. Crawford, thanks for showing us around.
Mr. CRAWFORD: I'm glad you could stop by.
(Soundbite of motorcycle)
RAZ: To read an excerpt from Crawford's book, go to npr.org.