Saturday, March 31, 2007
There are wonderful things that being married and having a family bring to a guy. First off, I married into a love of libraries. My wife Jean has been the director of our Carnegie Library for many years, and is now both director of that library and director of the two county library system. So, while the Fayetteville library is kind of a cold, new place in comparison with our very much loved and incomparable Carnegie in Eureka Springs, it is a library, and libraries are the best man-made places on earth.
I came to Fayetteville this morning because this is one of the last trips I'll make as a "ballet dad." I'm a "soccer dad," too, but my daughter Lucy has been a dancer from the time she was three and demonstrated for me how she could spell her name by moving quickly, shape to shape through the letters of her name. We have logged thousands of car miles taking Lucy to lessons in Berryville, Fayetteville and Rogers as she has moved through a progression of teachers and performances. Today I am here as Lucy has her dress rehearsal. The performances are tonight and tomorrow.
I guess I should be talking today about the "wisdom of the feet." Or maybe I should be talking about "the wisdom of the body," as described in poetry by former United States Poet Laureate Stanley Kunitz. It was Stanley Kunitz's writings that led me to the title of our Wisdom of the Hands program at Clear Spring School.
Kunitz once said poems are "born of the wisdom of the body." And he deliberately kept his tools simple. Physical. Pencils, paper and an old manual typewriter. "I usually start with notes and keep pushing ahead in my notebook, working with pencil or pen," he said. "And at a certain point when I feel the poem is beginning to roll, I turn to my trusty old Hermes 3000 and I start to type."
We hear so much about the brain these days. There is a great deal of excitement as researchers are enabled for the first time to view the inner workings of this mysterious organ.
But it is always a mistake to look too closely at the parts without the essential understanding of the whole. I am reminded of some of my first efforts at investigating the mechanical world. When I was 4 or 5 years old and for several years after, my father would give me anything that stopped working, along with a screw driver and whatever wrenches were required to take it apart. I found great pleasure in the discovery of the inner workings of things, in the same way that scientists now are discovering the inner workings of the human brain. My own enthusiasm got the best of me when I decided to take my sister's sewing machine apart. I wanted to see how it worked and what was going on inside, but not having any knowledge of the whole of it, my efforts had a devastating outcome. I couldn't for the life of me put the darned thing back together so that it would work.
Have you been to car dealers to look at the latest models? They are burying the working parts under shrouds of plastic, barring the consumer from the discovery of complexity and depriving him or her from even a glimpse of the inner workings of the machine. The effort, no doubt, is to give the buyer a sense of simplicity. Simplicity can be re-assuring in a complex world. But, in the meantime, we are building a world of simpletons... mechanical morons who have no sense of the inner workings of things, and who lack confidence in their abilities to take apart, to fix and maintain and are doomed to the endless cycle of unsustainable earth-wracking consumption.
There is something wonderful about ballet. It engages the feet and the hands and the body in the creation of form and movement that uplifts the spirit. I have to say that Lucy's love of ballet opened that world for me. Today, she is performing a dance choreographed by her favorite ballet teacher. It is a simple story told on stage of a simpler time. Having seen it in the past, I can hardly write this moment without the tears forming in my eyes from the remembrance of incredible beauty. I will get to see it again this evening, and then again tomorrow afternoon. The brain is a wonderful organ, but it is nothing without the body, and the brain without the dance of the heart, or the wisdom of the hand might just as well be pickled in a jar. It is what Stanley Kunitz brings to mind in the Wisdom of the Body, and what I hope comes to mind in your reading of this blog.
My time as a ballet dad is drawing to a close. I am thankful to have had one more chance to bring Lucy to her dance... I am thankful also to be sitting in the Fayetteville Public library, watching the Saturday morning parade of fathers, mothers, daughters and sons in their weekly pilgrimage to the joy of reading. What the heart desires, the feet proceed toward without a moment of hesitation. As I close here on my laptop, my fingers still on the keys, I observe through the corners of my eyes the parade of feet. Large and small, driven by the heart toward the engagement of the mind and spirit. Do we call it wisdom, or knowledge, or wisdom of the feet? Or of the whole person... Mr. Kunitz' wisdom of the body? Is it all covered by a plastic shroud, beyond the comprehension of the human spirit? I'll just sit here and watch a few moments more. If I discover something, I'll let you know. The photo above is our Carnegie Public Library in Eureka Springs.
Friday, March 30, 2007
It may seem a stretch to compare basketball with the hours spent in the wood shop developing skill to do beautiful work. But the interior mental "zone" is the same. The state of "flow" is the same. You know in the wood shop when you sink it. There are rim shots and swishers, and some shots that miss. The thing you don't have is the crowd. Those who appreciate your work the most will do so when you aren't around. They may enjoy it in the privacy of their homes, when a detail or a surface catches the attention of a hand or eye. In basketball, when the game is over and your team has won or lost, the cheering or sadness fades quickly.
When you make something out of wood, if it is beautifully made, and useful enough to gain a sheltered place in someone's home, it will last for generations. Long after the game has passed, and even after the players have gone from the earth, the well crafted object will live on and carry with it, the attention and devotion of its maker. What you make in the wood shop can be an expression of your highest aspirations and abilities and be treasured far beyond your own times. You may never hear the applause. You may never even know those who most treasure your work. But that should never stop you from taking the shot.
The photo above is of a redbud taken this morning in the woods outside my home.
Thursday, March 29, 2007
It is the same with woodworking. You can spend too many months reading the magazines and end up disappointed in your own work. It is better to start as a beginner, unconstrained by knowing too much. Just do it. Decide on a plan and follow through. Make something. I guarantee that it won't be your finest work (that is yet to come). But it will hook you on the process. Growth is always a process. It takes time. It may take all your attention for a time. It is a choice. We invest in something, or we slide. If great things came easy everyone else would have done it first. When you get a few pieces of woodworking done, and think that you are quite the master, look at the pages of Woodwork magazine or Fine Woodworking or attend a craft show. You will see work that will challenge you and inspire your next round of growth. Then go for it. Do some more. At some point, your work will offer challenge, inspiration and encouragement to others.
Prince Wen Hu's cook was carving up an ox. Every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every step of his foot, every thrust of his knee, with the slicing and parting of the flesh, and the zinging of the knife- all was in perfect rhythm...
Prince Wen Hui remarked,"How wonderfully have you mastered your art."
The cook laid down his knife and said, "What your servant really cares for is Tao, which goes beyond mere art. When I first began to cut up oxen, I saw nothing but oxen. After three years of practicing, I no longer saw the ox as a whole. I now work with my spirit, not with my eyes. My senses stop functioning and my spirit takes over. I follow the natural grain, letting the knife find its way through the many hidden openings, taking advantage of what is there, never touching a ligament or a tendon, much less a main joint.
"A good cook changes his knife once a year because he cuts, while a mediocre cook has to change his every month because he hacks. I've had this knife of mine for nineteen years and have cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the edge is as if it were fresh from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints. The blade of the knife has no thickness. That which has no thickness has plenty of room to pass through these spaces. Therefore, after nineteen years, my blade is as sharp as ever. However, when I come to a difficulty, I size up the joint, look carefully, and work slowly. Then with a very slight movement of the knife, I cut the whole ox wide open. It falls apart like a clod of earth, crumbling to the ground. I stand there with the knife in my hand, looking about me with a feeling of accomplishment and delight. Then I wipe the knife clean and put it away."
"Well done!" said the Prince. "From the words of my cook, I have learned the secret of growth."
Source: Gia-fu Feng, Jane English, Chuang-tsu. Inner Chapters. New York, Random House 1974, p. 55.
There is a thing that can happen when you are thoroughly engaged in the task at hand. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a book dedicated to the experience described by Chuang-tsu. The same experience has also been described as being in the "zone." Most craftsmen and artists know that space. In it, time stands still. You have to work to arrive in the zone, but once there, it pulls you in and invites your return, but the development of an ever increasing level of skill is the price of admission. At some point you awaken to see the wonderful work you have accomplished. People will ask how you did it. It is just as the cook describes. Csikszentmihalyi's book is a popular one because anyone who has ever worked hard for something has encountered the "flow" experience at some point and can relate.
We heard this morning from a friend in Norway whose son has been admitted to an asylum in Amsterdam for drug addiction. Our hearts go out to Kari, her son and her family.
It is all enough to make me wonder. As Kari said, "It is time for prayers, I'm just a mother. I've done all that a mother can do." Don't we all wish at times like this that there was more that we could do? And don't we also hope that inherent in the human soul is the seed of something larger that grows and triumphs over our moments of disappointment, anguish or despair?
Lucy wore brown this morning in hopes of her acceptance at her school of choice. She is bound for success and has the world by the tail, whatever the world of colleges and universities presents. We have our fingers crossed that she gets the educational opportunities she needs and has worked very hard to deserve. And there are children in the world that need more than crossed fingers... how about hands in prayer?
And I have to say, I'm not a praying man... I would prefer practical action to change society and change values so that all people can gain the insight and wisdom that comes through the creative efforts of their own hands. I have seen the value of creativity and the arts in my own life. So put your hands in prayer for just a moment. It may help. Then put your hands to work... putting hands-on education back in all schools. It would help. The photo above is of new leaves on the Japanese maple in our front yard.
Wednesday, March 28, 2007
When you are a student in school, there are some perceived barriers. There are old guys (and gals) running around that seem to have lost their cool years ago. In many schools, students look right past these old guys (and gals) without noticing. You may learn not to jump on top of the bookcases when they are in the room or throw stuff in the hallways when they are in sight... if they notice you they might send you to the office where you'll have to endure stern looks and lectures, sidelining you from the action with friends. So you do keep an eye out for them just to avoid trouble, but you don't take much time to look close. So, here goes, something for students from an old guy. Don't worry, I won't try to be cool. Just real.
Something you may notice about learning. It can be fun to learn new things. Most people love learning if they give it a chance. Learning is why human beings have survived as a species and why we have music and iPods. We have the music because people learned how to play, how to sing, and arrange and record. Surprisingly, most learned through long hours of practice. We have iPods because other people learned about the fundamental nature of reality and then how electrons move through circuit boards and chips, and memory cards. Surprisingly, this started back with Ben Franklin and a bunch of other goofy intellectuals in the 18th century and has been building every day ever since. Human beings learned how to make things, starting with stone tools and wood starting way back at the dawn of human time. The funny thing that you may not know is that most learning doesn't happen in school. Even when you are not in school, you are learning important things. So you can see that what Joe said about us all being students is an important thing, and it never stops.
One of the things you will notice about learning is that learning is more fun than being taught. So if you have an interest in having a fun life, plan a life in which you are challenged to learn something new each day, even if it is in school. I'm not talking about getting the facts or forming an opinion. Facts will help you win a game of trivial pursuit, and that might impress your friends for a minute or so, but the real challenge is in learning a skill. The difference between learning facts and learning a skill is that a fact might make you feel smart, but a skill will enable you to do smart things that make your life better, improve the lives of others in your community, build a career, and change the world. To make the world a better place means we have to work to get better and then better and better at something.
Schools these days seem to be much more about knowledge than about skill, which is a shame, but there are still important skills you can learn there...simple things that will pay off big in life. Reading with precise understanding is a skill. Doing math is a skill. Doing anything with accuracy involves skill, whether it involves lab work in chemistry, or shaping a clay pot on a wheel. Some skills are inside the head and involve the clear processing of information. Some skills are equally in the hand, like the cutting of a dovetail joint. Skill only arises in a person's life if he or she cares enough about things to work and develop over time. In other words, skill is all about caring. And the very sad thing about schools is that caring doesn't seem to be regarded as cool.
Have you ever noticed how teens will joke and kid each other? Have you noticed that sometimes things can get carried away, leading to fights or hurt feelings? Have you noticed that sometimes people just hurt other people on purpose because it somehow makes them feel more powerful? One of the scary things about caring about something is that it can become the point at which you express your vulnerability. If you are cool and don't care, the mean ones don't have a place against which to launch their attack. But if you care and openly express your caring, they can tease, they can taunt, and they can torment. It is like wearing a target for the oppressors. So the life of a teen in America is not an easy one.
A quality life, which is what all teachers hope for all students, all comes down to care. You've got to care to make it, whether in debate class, on the sports field, or in the wood shop. Life is only a bit about knowledge. It is much more about skill, and skill only comes through taking a chance on being teased and tormented and caring even when it isn't cool.
Now, I would like to explain an important thing about teachers. This applies to teachers in general, and much more to woodworking teachers. Teachers have the responsibility to keep students safe in their learning. In the wood shop, we have sharp blades and chisels and things spinning at high speeds that can sever fingers or poke eyes. Parents get really mad if they think that their children are in danger. When you are a parent, you will understand this. But for now, just take my word for it. In addition, teachers have some responsibilities to the people that hired them. In our school, for instance we have a sprinkler system and for some reason the sprinklers don't have protective cages over them. If they were hit by a soccer ball inside during lunch, the sprinkler heads could go off and flood the building. Being an adult, I see the possibilities. I've been around long enough to see some awful things happen. Having dealt in the past with a flooded building, it is the kind of incident I don't want to repeat. So, despite my being kind of a nice guy at the core, I get tired of having to repeat the same thing over and over again... and I get just as bored having to stop impulsive, thoughtless or dangerous behavior as some of the students I have to talk to must feel about hearing me. So cut your teachers a bit of slack. Notice them sometimes. Thank them if you get a chance. They've worked and learned and practiced their skills to get their chance to take part in your life and your education.
That's all for now. I didn't intend to write so much. This is way too long for any student in his right mind to read at one sitting. Sorry, Joe, you did ask for it.
Tuesday, March 27, 2007
Friedrich Froebel, (1782-1852): "Man only understands thoroughly that which he is able to produce."
Sir James Chrichton Browne (1840-1938): "It is plain that the highest functional activity of these motor centres is a thing to be aimed at with a view to general mental power as well as with a view to muscular expertness; and as the hand centres hold a prominent place among the motor centres, and are in relation with an organ in which prehension, in touch and in a thousand different combinations of movement, adds enormously to our intellectual resources, thought,and sentiments, it is plain that the highest possible functional activity of these hand centres is of paramount importance not less to mental grasp than to industrial success." "Depend upon it that much of the confusion of thought... in highly educated men and women is dependent on defective or misdirected muscular training, and that the thoughtful and diligent cultivation of (the hand) is conducive to breadth of mind as well as to breadth of shoulders."
I couldn't have said it better myself.
One more from Gustaf Larsson: "Tools are instruments by which the hands give expression to thought."
There is an obvious math connection in the making and use of an abacus. The benfits of folding paper may be quite so obvious. But it requires careful measuring and the adding and subtracting of fractions. In addition, the development of 3-dimensional objects from 2-dimensional paper offers development of spatial visualization skills, essential to geometry, and trig. It offers skills that will be useful in engineering and the types of scientific modeling that may enable our students to better understand the universe.
I learned today that Stockton, CA woodworking bus teacher Jim Marsh retired and his wonderful bus was sold as surplus. Jim is busy playing in two bands and writing articles for woodworking magazines among other "retirement" activities. I am grateful to have the photos of his children at work, but sad to see the bus retired. It takes a great deal of time, love and attention to build a program like Jim's, and it means that at some point in time, when people again understand the value of such programs, someone will have to come along and built it from scratch... a daunting task.
Monday, March 26, 2007
The basic design is very simple. We use a Lee Valley round tenoner in an electric drill to cut tenons at each end of a stick. (we are using hickory) We drill a hole in a piece of wood to serve as a handle and put a rubber cane tip on the other end. It is an easy project that could be done start to finish in a day, but will probably take longer due to the amount of time students spend figuring out how to be different.
My own canes were featured in the June 2005 issue of Woodwork Magazine No. 93. The article was called "A Bird in the Hand, Making a Cane for Aunt Wuzzie." A photo from that article is shown above. The shafts were made of black walnut and the handles from walnut burl.
On a more practical matter, the use of the hands in practical things like woodworking helps in the understanding of much broader reality. A friend of mine, Charlie Futral is in the business of planning delivery of very large objects through the nation's highway system. Charlie was at one time a woodworker and furniture restorer, and he credits his previous work with his development of the spatial sense that allows him to visualize and plan the safe movement of very large objects through their journey prior to their actual departure.
Another metaphor for losing one's rationality over an issue is the following: "he's lost all sense of proportion." We know that proportion refers to the relationship between the length, width and depth of an object. Can it be that the understanding of proportion that comes through the use of the hands can actually extend rationality into abstract thought. Try it and see for yourself. I can tell you about it, but would you believe me? Watch what we are doing to our planet if you care to see what the extraction of human behavior from hands-on reality can do.
Sunday, March 25, 2007
One of the interesting things about Belmont Hill is that as part of the graduation requirement, each student carves a wooden panel that remains as part of the school. It is a tradition that they started with the school's origin in 1923. You can search through an on-line data base of student panels and find some wonderful work. The photo above is of one of their students at work. The panel shown below is by William D. Elwell, Belmont Hill Class of 1927.
Check out The Tiny Houses Website, tinyhouses.net for a look. My wife Jean, daughter Lucy and I built one that is featured on the site. There is something that happens to people when they lose the sense of scale that the hands provide. We get carried away. Houses become larger and more inefficient. We have to hire people to keep them in order. They fill to the brim with meaningless stuff. They take on a life of their own, having huge impact on the environmental resources.
There is a bumper sticker slogan that applies to our situation: Live Simply that others may simply live. It is something you probably wouldn't learn in the Christian churches in Northwest Arkansas, but it is a message shared by most of the wise men and prophets of history.
Our own tiny house was made as more of a luxury than a necessity of life. We have a larger home only yards away and our tiny house serves as a guest cottage and may have other uses in time. I am involved in building an art school in Eureka Springs, and the tiny house may serve as a model for student housing. We'll see. The photo above is our "tiny house."
Saturday, March 24, 2007
It was the last day of class and my teacher assured me that I had done a good job and that I shouldn't worry about it. I guess he was right. I got the shelves back from my mother when I went to visit her. They had been safely kept for over 40 years as evidence of my learning and growth, the way mothers commonly do that sort of thing.
I remember being in class, cutting out the sides of the shelves with a coping saw, thinking I was doing a pretty poor job of keeping to the lines. Then I looked over at the next bench and saw how far from the lines my neighboring student had wandered in his cut. I remember thinking, "I guess I'm not doing that bad."
As mentioned by Otto Salomon, the value of the child's work isn't in the object he or she makes, but in the child. It is called "growth." Thanks Mom, for keeping a memento.
Now, all these years have passed away from my junior high and high school years. There are only a few things I remember crystal clear from that time: One was 9th grade Spanish class when I was informed that President Kennedy was shot, another was the moment the nail split the wood and my teacher's kind response. What we do with our hands can have profound impact in our lives and our education. Help me hammer this issue straight in, no splits, no bends.
In my own personal case, I am the mother of a very oppositional 11 year old. Over the years, I have used rewards (and punishments) to get him to behave, and as he's gotten older, he's only become more belligerent and angry. However, two weeks after embarking on "Punished by Rewards," I have backed off trying to control my son. While Kohn doesn't offer that many alternatives to rewards (he claims that each situation is unique and that one-size-fits-all discipline or behavior programs are presumptuous and, by definition, cannot work for everyone), somehow my relationship with my son is really improving as a result of my having read the book. My son and I hung out in our backyard this afternoon, hammering and sawing to make a ladder for a structure he's building, and we got along beautifully.
While Alfie Kohn's book is controversial...or at least behavioral psychologists don't seem to like it, rewards can be just as insidious as punishments in that they are designed (contrived) as an artificial means of controlling behavior. Both strip the dignity from the individual, by treating him or her as a stupid, insensitive idiot in desperate need of manipulation. There is something else entirely different at hand when one's feedback is from the real world and the reward comes in the direct sense of accomplishment.
This is something I've discussed previously in the blog. When you place a nail on a board, drive it in straight with a hammer, connecting two pieces of wood together strongly and without splitting the wood, there is a sense of accomplishment (effectance or efficacy) that leads to a desire to repeat the activity. When the nail bends, or the wood splits, the feedback isn't from an individual in the form of criticism, but simply the dispassionate response of the material. These are the rewards and "punishments" presented by the real world, and something quite different from the behavioral manipulations often offered in the artificial learning environments we call school.
Reading the review above and seeing the shift in parental attitude, I see that Alfie Kohn's book offered some magic. A hammer, saw, wood, and loving hands may have played their magic as well. The photo above is one more from Jim Marsh's Woodworking bus.
"A few years back I received an extra paycheck from my school district at the end of the year. Investigating further I found I had "earned" this extra money because--sometime during the preceding school year--I had brought my mobile shop and taught at one of our schools that had raised it's standardized test scores. No one could even tell me for sure which school it was. After almost 20 years teaching in what is now termed a "low performing, program improvement school" I take my act on the road and, ironically and suddenly, I'm a changed man--a "successful" teacher. I laughed all the way to Barnes and Noble where I bought a bunch of copies of Alfie Kohn's great book Punished By Rewards... a copy of which I gave to each member of our school board."
Last I heard from Jim Marsh, he was facing retirement from a system under a great deal of stress from NCLB legislation and pressures for increasing test scores. His program may no longer exist, but above and below are some photos of his kids at work.
Friday, March 23, 2007
Today, I've been making what I call "log cabin jigs" for routing recesses for installing custom designed drawer pulls on a set of cabinets. The "log cabin" jig gets its name from the over-lapping corners through which it is built up log cabin style around an object, and it is my own invention, or at least I've never seen anyone else make or use such a thing. It can be used for hinges or lock sets, or even for router table inserts, but has to be made special for each particular use. Fortunately they can be made in minutes. The image above is of the routed space, the jig, and the plunge router with bit and top mounted guide bearing. The photos below show the making of the jig. I'll show you another day what the finished pull will look like.
The preceding quote is from their website.
All this is worth mentioning because it highlights once again, the direct connection between the hands and thought.
On a much brighter subject (a bright yellow school bus), the photo below is from a project bringing woodworking to kids in LA. The images above are from students at work on the bus. The project was featured in this month's Woodshop News. The Alternate Routes Education on Wheels Woodworking Program is in its 10th year and has served over 10,000 children in Los Angeles.
Thursday, March 22, 2007
My friend in Buffalo, NY, Mario Nunez observed the following..."reading about the role of the hands reminded me of my neighbor Rose, who as far as Mary and I are concerned, could not say a word if you were to tie up her hands. And if you point that out to her, she gets all embarrassed and tongue-tied." One of the things I noticed is that as I've become more comfortable in moving my hands during speech, I have become more fluent, more confident and more expressive. Being raised a Protestant in the Midwest may have been a handicap in my communication skills. I'm working to overcome it.
The photo above is of a display cabinet I made for a collection incredible turned and carved wood objects.
The world is close up and personal when within arms length, we take it by the hand. But the hands are so much more than just another sensory organ. We create through our hands, whether directly as we knead dough, or shape clay, or through our tools, which as extensions of the mind and hand shape the world to conform to our creative imaginations, our longings for comfort, security and even beauty. In essence, the hands are the instruments through which we define our human nature and continuously redefine, and re-make our own lives in reflection of our highest aspirations.
Wednesday, March 21, 2007
I went for a walk and visualized the finished book as I went along through the beautiful neighborhoods of my Victorian village.
My conclusion: the Wisdom of the Hands will be two books. The first is about 278 pages in length consisting of 15-20 interrelated essays, with a 10 page center section of color photos of my work, work that has been inspirational to me, and woodworking being done by my kids at Clear Spring School. The second book is the Wisdom of the Hands Workbook, designed to make what people have learned in the main text immediately accessible and practical. The second book would be large format, full color and 160 pages of kids projects with sidebars on safety, project planning and child development.
I may have the synopsis ready to send on Friday. Feel free to comment either by the comment function on the blog or via email.
So what about wisdom and why does it matter? If you use the word, wisdom, you get a funny look. It is a word from the past that people no longer think of or can relate to. It throws them for a loop. The computer has become the dominant tool of the age, displacing the hand in the expression of intelligence. If you use the computer as an analogy, you can think of intelligence as processing power. It is the speed and capacity of the processor and its connections through the motherboard... the ability to process data. Wisdom is more like programming... a collection of experiences and relationships that allow the intelligence of the machine to direct its output creatively and with greater purpose. If you think of intelligence as an expression of speed, you can think of wisdom as an expression of careful reflection, of quiet and of calm... of action based on deep understanding. In the view of our fast-paced society, "who needs it?"
Much of our current disassociation from our hands evolved from the concept that labor was something to be saved from. It's odious. It stinks, it sucks. It's dirty, it messes the nails. In the great scheme of things promised by our science fiction, our machines, our great labor saving devices, would take the place of our servants. The dishwasher would perform the odious task of cleaning up after dinner. The restaurant would save us from the tedious task of cooking in the first place. We've become people of measurable intelligence with important things to process at great speed. Who would want to slow down, savor the hand's moment in the making of things, its immersion in warm water as the dishes are done? There are movies to watch, other forms of passive entertainment and distraction to attend to.
Is it any great surprise that the hurry of things makes stress, and that stress leads to distress? Is it any great surprise that as we have become more passive and powerless in our own lives, depression and anxiety have become the primary forms of mental illness?
Can all of this be explained in a book? Would it be best that I offer a few hints and challenges so that people discover from their own relationship to their hands, new meaning and purpose in their lives? The best lessons of life are the ones we learn from our own experience. In fact, the only things we really learn at the core of our beings are the things we learn "first hand."
Have a great day, and feel free to comment or share, either in the comment section or by email... The photo above is of carving on a cherry entertainment center. The carving pattern is one reflecting a study of plant sciences, and the piece was commissioned by a senior scientist at the Noble Foundation in Ardmore, OK.
Tuesday, March 20, 2007
But the Wisdom of the Hands isn't about the current research. It is about what you can discover for yourself, by observing and taking notice of your own hands. And the purpose of the Wisdom of the Hands isn't an academic one. It isn't just to bring slight modification in your thinking, but to change your life from passive to active, from dependent on the teachings of others to direct knowledge of the world acquired through your own hands. It is about both sensing and creating, with greater consciousness, allowing the hands to shape the life in greater dimension.
The hands are such a broad and complex subject. It will take awhile to get all this down, and perhaps even longer to edit it into a concise 3 or 4 page text. When things go across an editor's desk at a major publishing house. It has to get them in the first sentence. You can see I have a lot of work to do.
There are a number of things we know about the hands... and I want to summarize quickly what we know, how we know it, and then proceed into why we need to have the hands engaged in education.
First, we know from a long history of the study of anthropology and cultural anthropology, the essential and defining role played by the human hand. Our whole history is understood by the artifacts created or expressed though the activities of our hands, from religious icons, cave paintings, rock carvings, and the remains of everyday objects. The work of the hands are the highest expressions of our humanity. But even deeper, is the essential role of the hands in the development of man as a species. Homo Sapiens has also been called Homo farber, man the maker. The development and use of tools has been the foundation of the success of our species... and may present the greatest threat to our future survival. Anthropologists know at this point that the hand and brain co-evolved as a behavioral system, and are so seamlessly integrated that the hands move out from direct consciousness of them to attain that state. It is natural that we overlook the education of the hands in school. When they are functioning in their highest levels of intelligence and skill, sensing, expressing and creating, we are not aware even of their presence. But in this technological age, to continue to ignore them in the planning of the education of our children will have tragic consequences.
I can't do all this at one sitting and have shop work to do, also.
Here is the outline as it exists in my head at the moment.
1. My own story of engagement in the use of my hands.
2. The human history of engagement.
3. Educational Sloyd, Friedrich Froebel, Pestalozzi, etc.
4. Clear Spring School
5. Stages of development in the use of the hands, adult education...
6. The shaping of the interior landscape of human experience.
Monday, March 19, 2007
In the fall of 2001, we started the Wisdom of the Hands program at Clear Spring School. It had two purposes. It was designed to serve as a model of what woodworking can do in general education. It was also designed to allow me to engage in the kinds of learning I do best...from actual experience.
In 2002, in conversation with John Lavine, editor of Woodwork Magazine, I told him of my need to begin working on the book. He suggested that I write and submit portions of it as articles for the magazine. That would give me an audience and deadlines to keep my writing in motion.
This September, my wife came home from a class at the library on blogging. She said, "this sounds like something you would enjoy." I thought, "what a great way to get my thoughts down on a regular basis!" I realized that in just a few months I could have enough text for a good editor to shape into a book.
Two weeks ago, I contacted a literary agent who has asked for the following: A chapter of the book, and a synopsis. Armed with those two things and this blog, she will help me find the publisher I'll need to take this message to the streets. The 7 or 8 articles I've written for woodworking magazines and educational journals will serve in lieu of chapters. John Kelsey, founding editor of Fine Woodworking has expressed willingness to be editor. John Lavine is gathering the articles I've published with Woodwork as .pdf files and those will be provided as supplemental material.
The synopsis will be something you can help me with over the next few days. This will be a rather unique opportunity. I want the synopsis to be no more than 4 pages, providing an outline of the important but neglected role of the hands in learning. Tomorrow, I will begin presenting the rough outline in the pages of this blog. Feel free to contact me with your suggestions. Tomorrow, come hell or high water, the synopsis begins.
One of the schools in the Midwest had 22,000 applicants for 1500 openings for incoming freshmen. The application process for many universities is more like booking the seats in a jetliner than what our loftier imaginations would allow.
In pricing of tickets, the airlines know that they can sell this many tickets at this price, that many at that price, and they know that at the last minute, there will be plenty of travelers left in the marketplace to fill those last few seats at full fare. It helps if you realize that at many colleges and universities, scholarships are like discounts. As in any business, understanding the customers and the dynamics of pricing, is an important element in continued success.
There are differences between booking a flight, and attempting to enter a prestigious American university. At the university, you can be ejected in mid flight. If your circumstances change, your fare may change also. In regards to need-based financial aid, you have to provide irrefutable evidence of what you can afford. Just imagine having to share your most vital financial information with an airline before being quoted your best price.
To all those waiting with their children for the news, hold fast. At times it may feel like the airport shuttle in the Dallas/Ft.Worth Airport. Don't let the process jerk you off your feet. You will need a grip on the rail. Please rest assured that there will be those who will recognize your son's or daughter's incredible qualities and assist in the flight.
Sunday, March 18, 2007
Saturday, March 17, 2007
We listened to performances of Poulenc's Concerto in G minor for Organ, Strings and Timpani, then to a special performance of Edgar Meyer's Concerto No. 2 for Double Bass and Orchestra, with Edgar Meyer performing. These were followed after intermission by Rossini's Overture to Semiramide, and Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 4 in A major, Op. 90 ("Italian")
Was it hearing the music that made the difference, or the use of the hands in playing the music? It would take more extensive research to prove one way or the other, but there is research that indicates that the playing of instrumental music has significant impact on the learning of math. I strongly suspect that both have effect, the music and the hands that play it. The book describing the research can be found for download at The Arts Education Partnership Website. "Critical Links: Learning in the Arts and Student Social and Academic Development," was sponsored by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the United States Department of Education and was written by James Catterall, Karen Bradley, Larry Scripp, Terry Baker and Rob Horowitz. It is truly astounding how rarely the United States Government is able to take its own advice. It is a clear case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.
Support for the arts, including symphony orchestras, has significant impact on the lifting of basic intelligence in America. Listening is wonderful, as I can assure you after a wonderful night at an incredible performance. Greatest and most wonderful, however is for young people to have the opportunity to play. It is wisdom of the hands.
Friday, March 16, 2007
The Sloyd Knife. by Doug Stowe
A blind man stands at the rear of an elephant and while holding the tail proclaims, “The elephant is a rope!” It is ironic that the simple Sloyd knife, one of “half a hundred tools” used in Sloyd training came to be its strongest symbol; the very slender tail of a complex educational system. In fact the use of the knife was controversial even before the dawn of the 20th century and the knife we associate with Sloyd today is not even the one most recommended by its founder.
S. Barter, in Woodwork, The English Sloyd (MACMILLAN & CO. 1892) disparaged the knife in explaining the differences between the course of study in England and its Swedish origins. “ One of the most important tools used in the Slöjd course, and certainly the most unique is the Slöjd knife. The advantages of this knife are not clearly brought out, though the importance of it is so strongly insisted upon; and moreover, it has been found that in this country that all work done with the knife can be more efficiently performed with a chisel. Under these circumstances, there seems to be no adequate reason for adopting an ‘unfamiliar’ knife in preference to a tool which is in such common use by all classes of workmen.”
In the United States, Gustaf Larsson at the Sloyd Training School in Boston observed: (Elementary Sloyd and Whittling, SILVER, BURDETT AND COMPANY 1906) “As a general rule, children under twelve years of age have not sufficient strength or control of the hand to use the knife correctly. Whittling is recommended only when it is not possible to have the Elementary Sloyd, which requires a special room fitted up with benches and a variety of tools. Such an outfit is more effective educationally, but economically it is more expensive. Whittling can be done in the regular schoolroom by the regular teacher and with a comparatively inexpensive outfit.”
I had my own experiences with children and knives long before I learned about Sloyd. As a parent at the Clear Spring School, I went several times on the annual school camp-outs. To the surprise of many young parents, children are encouraged to bring pocketknives (with locking blades) and are taught whittling. The teachers keep the knives until there is a safe time for the students to carve with instruction and careful supervision. It is a primal experience to sit at a campfire as boys and girls with freshly sharpened sticks heat-harden their points as our distant ancestors might have hardened their spears.
Despite the reluctance of many practitioners of Sloyd to teach use of the knife, my experience with the young whittlers tells me a great deal about what Otto Salomon had in mind. Educational Sloyd, in its planned progression from the known to the unknown begins with and builds upon the interests and experience of the child. Looking back even farther in my own life I can remember my own first interest in knives. Being allowed to have one and use one was a symbol of parental trust and growing maturity.
According to Otto Salomon in The Theory of Educational Sloyd, “Every boy has many times, in a more or less elegant way, cut a stick with a knife, and is therefore more or less acquainted with the earliest exercises. We begin, then, with the instruments and exercises best known to the child, in order that our method of procedure may be as educational as possible.”
The use of the knife as proposed by Salomon offers insight into Sloyd’s foundation in educational theory. The English word education comes from the Latin root educe, which means to draw forth. While education in today’s world often seems bent on pushing knowledge in, regardless of the interests of the child, Sloyd reminds us that much can be drawn forth from the child by engaging the child’s innate interests and potentials.
I recently found a Sloyd book for sale on the Internet. In the ad were the seller’s words,
“As if we could trust kids with tools, now.”
And the great shame of it is we don’t. We don’t trust them and we don’t teach them the creative and responsible use of tools. We stand at the shoulders of the great beast of American education, blind to our children’s natural inclinations, and too often we fail to engage their interests or unleash their full potential. Fortunately, the problem is one that can be fixed with pocketknives and other sharp tools with guidance by parents, grandparents, and teachers. Just think of it! Children spending time in the woodshop!
The Early American Industries Association is an organization founded in 1933 whose purpose is: "to encourage the study and better understanding of early American industries in the home, in the shop, on the farm, and on the sea; also to discover, identify, classify, preserve and exhibit obsolete tools, implements, and mechanical devices which were used in early America." As part of membership, you receive an interesting periodical called, The Chronicle which features articles written by members on early tools and processes. They also publish books on occasion, and one to get you acquainted is called Selections from the Chronicle-The Fascinating World of Early Tools, Trades and Technology
Another organization that supports the role of the hands in learning and education and adopted the Hands in Education resolution is the Society of American Period Furniture Makers. My Sloyd brother Joe Barry writes articles for their Journal.
A third organization that is involved in activities very much related to the Wisdom of the Hands and has adopted the Hands in Education Resolution is the American Association of Woodturners
A fourth organization is one of which I am currently president, The National Association of Home Workshop Writers
You may not feel inclined to join all these organizations, but all are engaged in promoting a better understanding of the essential role of our hands in both maintaining our culture and finding greater meaning in our own lives. We find strength and encouragement in numbers and through association with those working toward similar goals. Saddle up, join up, hitch yourself as part of a team.
Thursday, March 15, 2007
This quote from Otto Salomon is one that I love because it describes what happens in museums when curators know more about the classification, left brain aspects of their work than of the actual making of things. We are watching a dramatic intrusion of fantasy into the understanding of how things were traditionally done, due to the current lack of hand skills and practical experience in the general populace.
One example is the understanding of the original use of half-models in boat building which was the subject of an article I wrote for Woodwork Magazine, No. 90, December 2004 called "Making Sculpture from the Half Model". Another example was when a friend of mine invited me to stop in his antique store to examine a chair made in the "17th Century".
I picked it up to look at the inside of the seat stretcher, and noticed huge spots of rotary planer tear-out. Now if you know anything about woodworking, you would know that they didn't have power planers in the 17th century, and if it were planed by hand, there is no way that a hand plane and operator, or even a large plane pulled by a horse (they did that, too) would apply enough force to remove such large chunks. You would never plane against the grain... you would know better. When the plane meets any level of excessive resistance, you turn the wood around and plane from the other direction.
"The planing machine was one of the many wood-working devices invented by General Bentham. His first machine, patented in England in 1791, was a reciprocating machine, that is, it worked back and forth on the boards to be planed. But in 1793 he patented the rotary form, along with a great variety of other wood-working machinery.
Bramah's planer, patented in England in 1802, was about the first planing machine of the Nineteenth Century. It is known as a transverse planer, the cutters being on the lower surface of a horizontal disc, which is fixed to a vertical revolving shaft, and overhangs the board passing beneath it, the cutters revolving in a plane parallel with the upper surface of the board. The planing machine of Muis, of Glasgow, patented in 1827, was designed for making boards for flooring, and presented a considerable advance in the art."
I was reminded of my own experience the other day when I was listening to part of a series on National Public Radio about college education. They interviewed a young man who told of his mother's expectations that he become a doctor because his uncles were engineers and other professionals. The young man said, "But I want to work on cars."
Otto Salomon, in The Theory of Educational Sloyd, 1907, quotes M. Jules Ferry, in opening a School for Manual Training in France in 1883:
"In order that the nobility of hand-work may be acknowledged, not only by those who engage in it, but by the whole community, we have chosen the surest and the only practical means: we have introduced it into the school. Do you not think that when the plane and file have taken a place of honour by the side of maps and histories, and handwork is taught in a rational and systematic manner, that many old prejudices will die out, and the traditional division into castes will disappear?"
A mother who wants the best for her child is not at fault in having aspirations regarding his or her education, but a society is deeply at fault for limiting the allocation of dignity, respect, and economic resources based on an academic divide. And schools are deeply at fault for failing to provide for the education of the hands and heart.
A couple of years ago, furniture design programs were attacked in the media because they didn't provide their graduates with all the knowledge required to compete in the furniture design world. I graduated with my degree in Political Science, and it is odd that no one ever raised the issue of colleges preparing political scientists with what they will need to compete, or even what we could possibly do with our degrees upon graduation.
(We can see clearly that graduation from Yale offers no special qualifications, except to position oneself for magnification of one's personal failures to global proportions.)
I would like to sit the superintendent of Roger's schools down for one moment and discuss real failure. If we have failed to offer our children the opportunity to discover the joy of learning through the hands, we have indeed failed. If we fail to offer our children a full insight into their potentials, both of hand and heart and of intellect, then we have failed severely and miserably. If we have failed to instruct them in the dignity of all labor, then we have failed our society for many years to come. There are many wonderful human beings that don't need a college degree to discover their own best potentials, joy of service and fulfillment in life. Neither he nor his teaching staff should be held to task for their "failure" to push these children into college. His true failure is that of closing doors of opportunity for the thousands of his children who do not have the opportunity to experience the wisdom of their hands.
I know you've seen enough pinwheels on this blog, but have you seen enough fun today? This is the first day of my spring break, so there will be few pictures of students at work for a few days.
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
Immediately after my college graduation, I felt like hanging out for a time in my college town of Hastings, Nebraska. I took a job at a manufacturing plant, operating a punch press. It was a way to make a little money and see a bit of the life I had hopefully avoided by getting my college degree. Besides, like most of the students graduating from college that year, I still didn't have a clue what I wanted to do with my life.
Operating a punch press was almost interesting work for the two weeks I was there. There was a mindlessness to it. Once you got your hands into the rhythm: picking up a piece of steel, placing it generally in the right spot on the machine, and then stepping on a pedal to set the huge cast iron wheels into motion, you could zone out in some degree of idle fantasy. A small device would sweep in front of your hands to keep them from being smashed when the die came down onto its mating piece on the table of the huge tool, in case your mind was to wander too far to keep your hands safe.
When I took time to look up from the operation, the room was full of similar machines, each with an operator whose hands swept in and out placing or removing parts and whose feet kept a steady rhythm, stomping pedals and setting the wheels in motion. Each machine added significantly to the noise level in the room. I felt that I was a small part in something larger that had not been explained to me and that I couldn't fully understand, but that was all about time and money.
This was the nature of unskilled labor in America. Each person in the plant was an extension of the machine which was an extension of the brains and planning of engineering and management.
I was a shy young college man at the time, mixing at lunch with blue collar. At lunch time, sitting on stools and eating sandwiches, I listened to the conversations, about quitting time, retirement and resentment. I had found myself in the company of men who had little interest in their work. One had noticed me working efficiently and quickly and noted that I should slow down. "Some would resent things if I made them look bad," he said. There was no sense of higher purpose or involvement. After about 2 weeks, I was ready to turn in my resignation and draw my pay. It was that day that an efficiency expert came by to watch me at my work. He stood over my shoulder and timed my motions. After standing there for a few minutes, he said, "You are really working fast. I wish everyone here would work like you." "Give them a good reason," I replied. "Today is my last day."
There is a difference between being unskilled labor, trading time for money, and being a skilled craftsman and learning new things each day. I am grateful for that difference and the opportunity to learn. But as Otto Salomon suggested, anyone willing to make a contribution to the betterment of our conditions, whether skilled or unskilled, deserves the respect of all.
Tuesday, March 13, 2007
As corporal labour has generally been performed by those who lacked culture, it came to be regarded as something in which cultured persons should not engage. From a social point of view, if we would get rid of the antagonism between different classes of the community, and bring about a good understanding between them, it is absolutely necessary that each should respect and appreciate the work of the other; and that everybody alike should understand that all work, mental or manual, gives dignity to all who engage intelligently and properly therein. All work, rightly so called, is good, honourable, and valuable... It is necessary for all classes rightly to appreciate manual labour, whether they make their living by it or not...
They may think it more difficult to solve a mathematical problem than to make a table. It is not an easy thing to make a parcel-pin or a pen-holder with accuracy, and when students have done these things they will be better able to estimate comparatively the difficulty of making a table or chair; and what perhaps is of still greater importance, they will become qualified to decide between what is good and what is bad work, and thus avoid the misfortunes which befall the ignorant and credulous through the impositions of knaves.
It is interesting what happens when we fail to engage the hands in learning. Craftsmanship and quality of work is no longer considered important in the development of art, which is now only for the intellect and not for the soul. We live in a world in which manual labor is deprived of the respect it deserves, and those who stand tall and proud while perched on the thickness of their diplomas are left feeling incompetent when faced with a material world in which things break, wear out, or quit.
In my work as a craftsman, it is the same. While the making of small boxes seems like it would be an intense operation, I have actually done it so many times, and worked out the processes to such a point of refinement, that to spend a week making boxes is like taking a week off from my more demanding work. The balance comes in my making of custom furniture. I make things that I've never made before, engineering each piece which often involves learning new skills and developing new approaches to get the look I and my customer want. And then there is the money end of things. I know how long it takes to make a box and how much I can get paid for one. I've been making and selling similar boxes for 30 years. When I make a piece of furniture, it is extremely unlikely that I've made anything much like it in the last 20 years. It is hard to estimate costs and actually come out without losing money.
There are important things to be found in the balance. Human labor in the natural world has always been within a range from highly skilled and demanding, balanced with times and labors less demanding and requiring less skill and attention.
Something very tragic happened to work when manufacturing divided labor into skilled and unskilled. The long, long hours of repetitive, mind, heart and hand numbing work gave manual labor a bad name, stripped it of its dignity, and similtaneously, stripped those lucky enough to fall into the upper classes of the motivation to engage in the discovery of the full range of their human potential.
I hope to talk more about this ...but for the moment, it is off to school.
Monday, March 12, 2007
The course for Practical Philosophers was planned to give a hands-on component to work in meditation. While the making of 16 shaker tables, one each for the students in the class, provided the structure and plan for the class, its real intent, consciously shared by all was for students to use their hands to engage "the working surface." It is interesting that as one masters a skill, the mind is liberated to wander while the hands move unconsciously through the motions they have been programmed to perform. It is not surprising that the hands are nearly forgotten in education. It is the way they work in seamless harmony with thought.
Most people these days, have developed skills allowing the brain to process thoughts into words and words into sentences and sentences onto the computer screen with little thought to the fingers moving on the keyboard. Keyboards, and the keys themselves are designed to offer little resistance or little sensory response that would interfere with the process.
It is common for human beings to look for work that can be done in an unconscious state, allowing our minds to wander through endless cycles of circling thoughts, often bordering on neurosis.
So, what if the hands were more consciously engaged, to feel the surface of the wood and its transformation without being pushed aside into subconsciousness and refusing the mind its typical wander? Have you heard the mantra from Ram Dass, "Be here now, Now be here?" What if the hands were used as tools in meditation to keep the thoughts and consciousness in the present moment?
It is what craftsmen do. Some once in awhile, some all the time. We push ourselves to learn and master new techniques requiring that the totality of our attention be placed squarely on the task at "hand." It is called growth. It keeps the body and spirit in the moment, allowing for the full blown dimensions of life to swell within the heart, and the spirit to take wing.
It was extremely interesting to hear from the students what they learned and what they discovered about themselves. The photo above is of students sanding and assembling their tables.