Wednesday, June 06, 2007

So what happened to woodshop? Why have the last 30 years brought such a decline in hands-on learning opportunities in school? In Ft. Lauderdale, one of my students asked if it was because of insurance. But woodshop is less dangerous than basketball. Who in their right mind would propose an end to basketball? Not me!

The seeds of the decline of woodshop were planted long long ago, when the "Russian system" was chosen over "Educational Sloyd" or the "Swedish system." The Russian system was designed for the sole purpose of pushing students into industry with a few basic preparatory skills. It was widely promoted and supported by industry and government, because there was a huge need to supply the demand for a largely unskilled workforce.

The idea was reflected in what Woodrow Wilson proposed when he was president of Princeton University and before he became president of the United States.

"We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class, of necessity, in every society, to forgo the privileges of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks."

Educational Sloyd was different from that. It was completely out of step from the interests of the robber baron tycoons running the American economy. It spoke of the dignity of all labor and asked that all students have the experience, brain and character development that resulted from work with the hands.

As the American economy moved away from an unskilled manufacturing base, school woodshops became the dumping ground for unsuccessful students. The woodworking teacher became the teacher of last resort in the rescue of potential drop-outs already deeply alienated by an educational system designed to preclude their success. If you don't believe this, re-read Woodrow Wilson's statement above.

So who would become a woodshop teacher under these circumstances? Fortunately, a few. Unfortunately, not enough. Stripped of their original mission, woodshops have foundered. Shops close for a variety of reasons. One is that there are no replacement teachers. The other is that with a shrinking industrial base, woodworking is seen by some as a track to nowhere.

It is by re-examination of its origins that we gain a renewed sense of possibility. When Runkle at MIT and Woodward at Washington University started the first woodworking education programs in the United States, it was because they saw the value of woodworking in the development of the mind and thinking skills. They observed that their engineering students were crippled by their lack of hands-on experience. They saw that education left in the abstract would not meet the needs of the American people and that the training of the hand was essential to the training of the mind.

To that, I will add that the training of the hand is also crucial to the engagement of the heart.

During the summer, teachers and administrators are preparing for another year of school in which 30% of high school seniors won't be motivated to graduate. That is a problem of tragic proportions whose solution is simple and lies within our grasp. If you want to know more, read a bit of the blog. The archive includes a whole year of woodworking at Clear Spring School.

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