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In Praise of Matthew B. Crawford: Forming Attentive Disciples

November 18, 2020


“The habit of attention is the substance of prayer,” writes French mystic Simone Weil. But that habit is under tremendous threat today. With all the advertising bombarding us throughout the day, paying attention now seems to require superhuman will. And the harder it is to attend, the harder it is to pray. Catholics should be concerned about this because prayer (communion with the Lord) is the heart of the Christian life. The best place to understand the threats to attention is the work of Matthew B. Crawford, a big Weil fan. In many ways, he is echoing what Romano Guardini observed at the beginning of the twentieth century. Reading Crawford’s work along with the writings of Guardini on prayer and liturgy will help today’s Catholics understand the practices that cultivate attention and foster agency, habits essential to prayer and holiness, and see why certain types of work, education, and lifestyles, while not intrinsically evil, are corrosive of the Christian Life. 

I have been following Matthew B. Crawford since the publication of Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work in 2009. What makes the book so great is Crawford’s own story. I’m not sure if Crawford still owns his vintage motorcycle repair shop, but he did when he wrote Shopclass. He was not your typical mechanic. Having earned a PhD in political philosophy from the University of Chicago’s prestigious Committee on Social Thought, Crawford is an intellectual by nature. But he had a background in the trades, since he worked as an electrician during his college days to pay his bills. After finishing graduate studies, he worked for a think tank in Washington, DC, believing that it would be intellectually stimulating. Instead, he found the work intellectually unengaging and antithetical to true critical thinking. The think-tank executives did not want him to genuinely muse about a given topic, but to make all his thinking arrive at certain predetermined conclusions. As someone who valued genuine thinking, he had to leave, spending his savings on opening a motorcycle shop, a place of real thinking and individual agency. 

Shopclass enumerates the virtues of working in the trades, particularly the disciplined practice of attending to reality in all its concreteness. This is perhaps the hardest thing for humans to do, as noted by Crawford’s favorite mystic, Simone Weil. We’d rather suffer physical pain than have to attend to reality. Attending to reality is an art that will do more good than many good works. In Shopclass, Crawford calls for the return of shop classes in the schools that, unfortunately, replaced them with computer classes. This was understandable given the growth of the digital economy, with computer programs, especially from Apple, that were designed in such a way that their use was easy, letting many get by without the advanced skills that shop class afforded. However, as the computer takes over many jobs, embodied knowledge is replaced by mediation, occluding the object of attention. Crawford’s concern is that with the disappearance of shop class and the increasing challenges to cultivating the habit of attention, self-government and rational agency fall by the wayside, creating a passive class of consumers easily manipulated by a few masters.  

The quality of a job depends on how its work forms habits of thought and practice. As Crawford shows, the typical work in the trades requires more intellectual engagement with reality than the usual white-collar job. And insofar as they do this, these types of jobs are better for us. People need to know the world and directly see the good they’re bringing to it. The trades require its practitioners to really get to know the world as it is. Many jobs today are removed from reality and deal in abstractions constructed by others. The trades are close to reality and require the habit of attention. The best car mechanics have an embodied sense of how each car should sound, a skill computers have a hard time emulating. 

James Manigold’s Ford vs. Ferrari wonderfully drives home this point when driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) and car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) decide to oust a computer for a more embodied, humane way of knowing how to improve the speed of the car. Crawford must have loved this movie. 

Crawford’s second book The World Beyond Your Head: Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction develops the theme of attention even further, delving into the findings of cognitive psychology. He describes the ways advertisers have used the findings of cognitive psychology to direct consumer attention. For me, the most egregious example Crawford recounts was Dunkin’ Donuts’ advertising in South Korea in which ads were played in Seoul buses right before riders would get off at a stop with a Dunkin’ Donuts. The creepiest part, though, was that with the ad a Dunkin’ coffee scent was emitted in the bus’ ventilation system, whetting the appetites of potential customers. Instead of revolting people, it won the prestigious Bronze Lion award for marketing. 

Advertisers will do almost anything to further consumption. And though excessive consumption might be good for the economy, it is not good for human beings. Crawford looks to master craftsmen—whether that be a hockey player, an organ maker, or a glass maker—as modeling ways out of ineptitude and back to reality. Each of these attend to reality in an embodied way, without reliance on representation, and each involve a habit of attention that facilitates individual agency. Such craftsmen are attuned to the particularities of the object they must attend to. In a way, they are models of prayer. 

Romano Guardini’s The Art of Praying taught me that prayer is like a craft. It requires apprenticeship. I received this book around the time of my Confirmation. That year my family went to Toronto to see Pope John Paul II at World Youth Day. I brought the Guardini book with me, which was perfect, because John Paul II embodied for me everything Guardini was talking about. Like Crawford’s master craftsmen, John Paul II was a spiritual master, and I wanted to be like him. Reading the book showed me that prayer is truly a craft (techne) that God has given us to commune with himself. It has a given structure and form to it: “Through him we have access by the Spirit to the Father” (Eph. 2:18). Like Crawford, Guardini was concerned about the disappearance of attention and the disintegration of the self in the modern world, so full of distractions drawing us away from the spiritual life. To counteract this trend, he thought it necessary to turn us back to the Image worthy of our attention, given to us by God—Jesus Christ. By attending to Christ, we are led to the full understanding of our self (foreshadowing the theological anthropology expressed in Gaudium et Spes 22). 

But the interesting thing is that unlike the subject-object relationship that Crawford so insightfully explores, Guardini as a personalist shows how this relationship is a relationship of persons—namely, the self’s relation to the divine Son who opens us up to the Trinitarian communion of persons. By contemplating the Son in the Spirit, we are brought into the fullness of life. The saints are now masters who learned from and became like the master himself, who is attentiveness to the Father. So, for Christians, the Son is attentiveness itself. I am not sure if Crawford is a spiritual man, but I believe he would be open to exploring the art of Christian prayer. 

Some think it silly to relate the attentiveness required of the crafts to prayer. But that’s to be expected if most of us have not been educated in its ways. Imagine there were no master craftsmen around to mentor neophytes in the ways of a trade. Neophytes could learn how to become competent based on textbooks and YouTube instructional videos, but without mentors they could never become masters themselves. Analogously, we need craftsman in the spiritual life who can mentor spiritual neophytes into the ways of the Spirit, teaching them the theory and practice of prayer. The saints are our guides here, but we need to seek out living guides in the life of the Spirit, of which the Church has many. 

Crawford’s work is invaluable for Christians who rightly recognize the importance of attention and the ideal of the craftsman. They can use his work as a stepping-stone to the art of prayer. I think Crawford sees this. But even if he does not make this connection, Crawford’s work does us an invaluable service by calling people to cultivate the habits of attention that form the person likely ready to respond to the call of the Lord. For this, we owe Crawford tremendous thanks.