Saturday, February 16, 2008

I've been spending a two year term as president of the National Association of Home Workshop Writers. I agreed to serve because of the organization's potential in promoting hands-on learning. One of my duties is to rally the troops through our quarterly newsletter. What follows is my contribution for spring 2008. Those who read here regularly will recognize it's core as coming from an earlier blog post.

A friend once told me, that it's great to go with the flow, but it is best to know first where the flow is going. Her idea was that you might be pleasantly floating in a meandering stream on its way to a cataract, or down a storm sewer.

As writers, we work day to day, from one job to the next, going with the flow and hoping it is headed in the right direction. Most of the news out there isn't good. People are reading fewer books. They are happy with sound bites and snippets of information. Young men and women spend their time gaming instead of fixing and making, and no one seems at all concerned with the strategic implications of all our stuff being made in China or with the huge debt we owe them for it. The news of the environment is dire. Tornados, heat waves, fire, avalanche and hurricanes dominate the 6 o'clock. We are messing things up, have no one to blame but ourselves, and have little grip on how to change or bring change.

It's a bit like floating in a canoe and hearing the massive falls up ahead, or worse, the sucking sound of a civilization going down the drain. Those who have some experience with a paddle know that a simple stroke, well timed and placed can turn the course.

We few, as a small family of "How-To" writers have some special qualities that come from making and fixing and having developed the capacity to tell about it. What we do requires an integration of hand and mind that has been discouraged and disparaged since the time of Socrates. That integration is needed more now than ever before in human history.

In the late 1870's when manual arts were first introduced to schools in the US by Calvin Woodward at Washington University and John D. Runkle at MIT, it was because these early educators had noticed deficiencies in their engineering students. These students needed hands-on experience in 3 dimensional reality to be qualified for the intellectual components of their work. In those early days, the connection between the hands and the brain in learning was widely accepted as an educational concept.

During much of the 20th century, however, using modern manufacturing as their model, educators sought greater efficiency and economy in the processing of students through the system. This meant large numbers of students in the classroom, with material being delivered by lecture, often missed or ignored by students whose hands were now to be stilled and neatly folded on their desks. It also meant a division in schools, separating the work of the hands from the work of the intellect as described by Woodrow Wilson when he was President of Princeton.

"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."

When he became President of the US, Wilson pushed the Smith-Hughes Act through Congress simultaneously providing certain schools with money for technical education and stripping academic institutions of the challenge and responsibility of providing hands-on experience.

My program at the Clear Spring School, Wisdom of the Hands was founded on the recognition that the engagement of the hands is an essential element in the engagement of the intellect and the realization of its full capacities for all students, including those who choose to pursue academic careers.

It is interesting that now, at last, modern scientific methods are proving the hand/brain system that had been widely observed and understood by early educators and largely ignored in recent decades. Researchers at the University of Chicago, University of Rochester and other top research universities are finding the use of the hands in gesture to be a clear view into the workings of the mind as it processes information and as we learn. Most simply stated, the movement of the hands facilitates the movement of thought in the brain, and as we use our hands in learning and making we become more intelligent as well as more creative.

Those of us who write about what we can do with our hands; those of us who express wisdom and intelligence through our hands in the making of real things, shaping physical rather than virtual realities, have a sacred trust. Theorists and the evening news can tell us how bad things can get. People untrained in skill of hand and mind will flounder. You, our nation's Home Workshop Writers are gifted with working hands and the power of the written word to inspire, encourage and give confidence.

So, here we are, hands on paddles and some knowledge of the stream ahead. We know that things wrong require hands and real tools to fix. We are empowered. Dig deep in the water with each and every stroke.

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