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Soul Searching or Standards

July 12, 2009

In his new book Shop Class as Soulcraft, political philosopher and motorcycle mechanic Michael B. Crawford examines value of manual labor and craftsmanship. He concludes, among other things, that the meaning of such work lies in the pursuit of excellence, which is evidenced in two ways: the objective quality of one’s work product and the recognition of one’s mastery by other skilled craftsmen. Crawford argues convincingly that much of what passes for work these days lacks such qualities by favoring conformity over quality.

Difficulty in reducing a job to a series of easily repeated steps described by rules or algorithms that one can rely on to produce repeatable results and consistent high quality distinguishes the kind of work Crawford considers most meaningful. This sort of work, he argues, defines culture in the form of shared meaning, and in doing so promotes a sense of community. Such qualities characterize work that relies on tacit knowledge, intuition and expertise. Crawford cites firefighting as an example of such a craft.

As members of that craft, we should carefully reflect on the question raised by Crawford’s analysis: Has our pursuit of rules, standards and measures diminished our profession? Are we lowering the bar rather than raising it when we equate quality with compliance?

Without a doubt, we have obligations to others outside our profession to prove our worth. Clearly, this is no mean feat. It begs of us the question, “What do others expect?” Our profession’s efforts to answer this question by reducing our internal values to a series of quantifiable measures such as response time, crew size and similar metrics diminishes the inherently qualitative nature of “a good stop” or a “righteous save” while neglecting altogether the cultural disposition required to sustain commitments to preventive measures. It also marginalizes the highly situational nature of these experiences, which often arises more from opportunity than skillful execution.

The high esteem in which firefighters are held owes itself in no small measure to the subjective experience of how we conduct ourselves rather than any objective standard such as response time or crew size. People think we did a great job even when we know we didn’t simply because our crews responded in an orderly, focused, and compassionate fashion. In many ways, this is what really counts, not that people hold us in high esteem, but that we acted in a manner consistent with both their expectations and our own values.

As leaders in our profession, we have nothing less than a moral obligation to resist efforts to define agency in terms of simple rules or standards. We know that how we respond makes as much or more difference to the public than questions such as “how fast” or “how many.” Being a good fire chief requires us to respond to both communities — our profession and our jurisdiction — in ways that appeal to moral reason without resorting to oversimplification or moralistic prescription. We can start by asking both communities to consider carefully what qualities distinguish good work.

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