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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries
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Book review: The Case for Working with your Hands

The title of this book held out the promise of an interesting argument, which sadly was not fulfilled by its content. The author went to college with the usual expectation of being prepared for a life behind a desk, did a PhD and somewhat by accident found himself working for a ‘think tank'. But having grown up with a love of repairing motorbikes, he soon gave the office up and opted for a career in oily workshops.

Drawing heavily on his background as a philosopher and quoting Aristotle and Pirsig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) among others he admires, Crawford's best writing is his analysis of the demeaning nature of many office jobs. Glamorous-sounding careers often resolve into differentiated tasks, with any task that can be clericalised reduced to just that. Crawford has a hostility to a world of rules and regulations that take the individuality out of the professional.

"White-collar professions... are subject to routinization and degradation,
proceeding by the same logic that hit manual fabrication a hundred years ago: the cognitive elements... are appropriate from professionals, instantiated in a system or process, and then handed back to... clerks — who replace the professionals."

On public policy, likewise: "Standardized tests remove a teacher's discretion in the curriculum; strict sentencing guidelines prevent a judge from judging. Our liberal political instincts push us in this direction of centralizing authority; we distrust authority in the hands of individuals."

Crawford lampoons the corporate focus on teamwork and the creation of corporate rather than individual culture. If anything, his view is that university education is designed not to develop specific skills but to mould the future players in these corporate teams.

Although he makes a convincing case for where offi ce work is bad, he is less good in making the case for working with your hands. He describes the Herculean efforts he makes in order to get a motorbike working again and the ensuing pleasure this gave him. But there is little assessment of the intrinsic satisfaction of a manual job well scoped and delivered with the sense of completion this brings.

If there is one area for future focus or development, he could address the challenge of choosing a manually skilled vocation. College probably provides a few years' interlude when young people can develop their maturity and drift towards an office job. The school-leaver choosing a manual career by contrast needs to make an earlier decision and choice on how to develop their skill. The world, after all, does not solely consist of pen-pushers and repairmen. Crawford needs to pay more attention to the people whose hands actually make things in the first place.


The Case for Working with your Hands
or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good is published by Viking. RRP £16.99