Matthew Crawford has a Ph.D. in political philosophy from the University of Chicago, but he spends his days repairing motorcycles in a small shop in Richmond, Virginia. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.
In his book, Shop Class as Soulcraft, Crawford — who turned down an interview request — writes about how he took a soul-sucking think tank job in Washington, D.C. after graduation and lasted less than half a year.
He was always mentally exhausted from solving intangible problems in a bureaucratic web. But the bikes he fixes are exhilarating, he has a real issue (a bike won’t start), and a reward when he fixes it (the engine roars to life).
In the shop, he gets to solve an entire problem, from start to finish, not just deal with a small portion of an issue the way most companies, and certainly government bureaucracies, are set up. And you can’t exactly outsource repair work the way you can a desk job.
“While manufacturing jobs have certainly left our shores to a disturbing degree, the manual trades have not,” Crawford writes. “If you need a deck built or car fixed, the Chinese are of no help. Because they are in China.”
“I landed the job at the think tank because I had a prestigious education in the liberal arts, yet the job itself felt illiberal: coming up with the best arguments money could buy,” he notes. “This wasn’t work befitting a free man, and the tie I wore started to feel like the mark of the slave.”
So he got out and launched a successful repair shop that gives him the freedom and satisfaction he craved.
But is the no-college route really a viable alternative, or do people like Crawford just get lucky?
Crawford, who is also a senior fellow with the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, bristles at the idea that trades like motorcycle repair are too good for a college graduate, and thinks society needs to do a better job of recognizing and rewarding people who pursue trade careeers, regardless of what diplomas they do or don’t have, so that those who succeed aren’t seen as outliers.
George Leef, director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, a libertarian think tank, agrees.
“Yes, there are viable alternatives to spending an enormous amount of time and money on a degree that for many young people just puts you in the great mass of people holding cause credentials working at Starbucks,” he said.
Certification programs, in auto mechanics, for example, or even coding, indicate more knowledge than many degrees, the self-described member of the “dissident camp” added. Just because someone graduated from college doesn’t mean they learned anything.
He pointed out that companies like Google are beginning to jump on the bandwagon, hiring people with coding experience over impressive degrees.
According to a recent Lumina Foundation-backed analysis, some short-term credentials are worth more than four-year degrees. They found that recent graduates with technical associate’s degrees in Texas earned about $11,000 more after graduation than people with bachelor’s degrees. In Colorado, Applied Sciences associate degree-holders earned $7,000 more than people with bachelor’s degrees.
“There are lots of jobs where what matters is whether you can do it well,” he said, “not what piece of paper you have.”
John Stossel, a Fox News libertarian commenter and former ABC News correspondent with a Princeton degree, has been vocal in speaking out against what he says is an unnecessary push for everyone to attend college. He has said what he learned about journalism he learned on the job, not in the classroom.
“For many people,” he wrote in an opinion piece, “college is a scam.”
Leef and Stossel have similar perspectives. Much of what goes into education spending covers costs that are peripheral to actual education, they argue, things like building costs and exorbitant professor salaries.
John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, similarly eschewed completing a college degree after bouncing between the University of Texas at Austin and Trinity University.
As the New Yorker noted in 2010, his decision to leave college created a schism between his family, with his mother urging him on her deathbed to give up his “stupid health-food store” and go back to college.
He never did and despite naysayers, Mackey now heads up the best-performing publicly held grocer in the nation.
But it’s a difficult path to forge, partially because society has evolved or backtracked, depending on your view, to a place where college is dangled as the unequivocal path to success.
The Obama administration has repeatedly touted a college education as a ticket to a middle-class life. And college counselors across the country regularly cajole kids who may not want or need a degree down that path.
As an essay in the summer 2013 issue of Wilson Quarterly, a publication of the Wilson Center think tank points out, “At schools that have embraced the college-for-all aspiration, career and technical education is seen as being as outdated as chalkboards and cursive handwriting.”
The thing is, college graduates do generally earn more, even when loans are factored in, an argument proponents of the college-for-all path are quick to point out.
In 2010, the median wage for men between 25 and 34 with a high school diploma was about $33,000, compared to about $50,000 for those with a bachelor’s degree. It really can be a path to success for some people.
But that doesn’t have to mean vocational school can’t also be a realistic path to success.
The current problem is that many vocational programs have closed and those that remain open aren’t always doing their job - teaching people valuable, marketable skills. To make certificate or vocational programs a viable path, they need to be improved.
“The best way to address this divergence is not to give up on college-for-all, or on expanded career and technical education,” reads the Wilson Quarterly piece. “We need to look at the debate in a different way, incorporating individual experience as well as data, and humanistic as well as economic perspectives.”
In other words, people deserve a choice, which after all, is what Crawford argues in his book: people deserve to feel a sense of agency about their work.
“It isn’t fair that we rule out people who don’t have credentials,” Leef said, “but who might be really good at doing things for the job.”
Note: The author previously interned for CQ Researcher, when the publication covered Crawford’s book in this issue.
Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.