Saturday, August 30, 2008

I am sitting here with the smell of old books. Some from the Columbia Teacher's library are in folders and fragile to the touch. So I handle them with great care.

The following is from the introduction to Paper Sloyd You will remember that this was written in 1905, when teachers were trained in making observations themselves rather than being dependent on abstract testing procedures.
We are coming to see that the pursuit and attainment by the pupil of a concrete end--some object constructed by him in accordance with a clearly conceived plan--involves a general training as useful in itself and as serviceable in its permanent effect on the pupil as the attainment of a purely intellectual end,--the successful pursuit of a language, the effective grappling with some social problem, or with a problem in natural science or in mathematics, each in its own sphere.
The following is from The Pedagogy of Educational Handicraft by T.W. Berry:
Some aver that a course of scientific training in handicraft gives a boy or girl a new zeal for school work to such an extent that the progress of such a pupil is not only equal, but often exceeds, that of pupils whose attention is concentrated on a literary curriculum. If this is true, even to the extent a pupil under these conditions holds his own, he has the additional advantage of having learnt to use his hands, and his education as a result is "all sided." It has been said that "the true aim of education is the development of all the powers of man to the culminating point of action: and this power in the concrete--the power to do some useful thing for man--this must be the last analysis of educational truth"
I couldn't have said it better myself!
This is the email I sent to Pi Beta Phi

On the subject of Arrowmont,

We think of literacy as having only to do with the written word and forget that the first written language was in the form of knotted string, and the word text is derived from the Latin textus, referring to woven cloth.

You may have heard the term "narrative" in relation to crafts, a term which acknowledges that each thing uniquely crafted by the human hand tells a unique story; the story of that maker and the culture, tools and materials through which we have crafted our human existence.

You might make the mistake that literacy is only the reading from books or blogs, but in actuality it involves so much more, and in the crafting of objects, we find voice to express and share our essential humanity.

I just wanted you to know these things in case for some reason you have come to the illogical conclusion that supporting a school for arts and crafts is inconsistent with your noble mission of literacy.
I am here in New York and found a box waiting for me in my daughter's Columbia University mail. A librarian at Columbia Teacher's College has been going through the books that are being discarded, and he had contacted me about one in specific that was being thrown out... Paper Sloyd by Ednah Anne Rich. He held that one for me and collected more having to do with the early days of Manual Training in the US.

These books are a treasure. Unfortunately, at Universities throughout the US, the role of the hands in learning has become a thing of the past, something they just don't get, and sadly, Columbia University and Columbia Teacher's College are no exception. Thankfully, there is a librarian here who loves books and enjoys putting them in the hands of those who will read and enjoy. Don't you just love librarians?

Columbia University and Teacher's College had played an important role in the early days of Manual Training in the US, and Charles A. Bennett, author of the two volume set on the History of Manual Training, and the founder of the Manual Arts Press in Peoria, was a PH.D graduate from Columbia.

Times change, and what goes around comes around again. We are in the process of a reawakening to the significance of the human hand. Our hands are the foundation of creativity and human culture. We are diminished in creativity and intelligence when we fail to explore hands-on our physical reality. Check back in the days to come. I will have things to share from these new old books.

Friday, August 29, 2008

We are poised at the edge of New York City this evening ready to unload Lucy at Columbia in the morning and get her room ready for her sophomore year. My wife Jean likes a hands-on approach for such things.

If you are interested in helping with the Arrowmont travesty, the petition you can sign is at Sign it but when they ask for money, realize they are asking for the website and not for the important cause. Read what signers have to say about their experiences and the contributions Arrowmont has made to their lives. Then if you read far enough, you will find that the land the Pi Beta Phi fraternity wants to sell was sold or given to them in the first place for educational purposes. To sell for commercial development profits be an extreme loss of honor, and we can hope they come to their senses. If you would like to keep up with things as they unfold, check out

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Today I am driving with my wife and daughter to New York City, delivering Lucy to her sophomore year at Columbia University. The photo below is a preview of next week at Clear Spring. We will be making pencil sharpeners, as an introduction to a variety of woodworking and measuring tools. This time we will also introduce the idea of working in partnership with other students. While I'm on the road, I am attempting to organize my paper for Finland. I've brought a collection of photos of Clear Spring Students making tools of all kinds which will be included as examples.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

When you observe the interplay of development and culture, for example the situation with Arrowmont and the negotiation with Saudi investors wanting to buy the property and turn it into a major new Gatlinburg development, you see that things are played out in both the micro and macro worlds, and as human beings, to quote Joni Mitchell, "we don't know what we've got til its gone," and are put in the difficult situation of reclaiming lost culture and identity.

The big buzz concept in the world right now is "sustainable development" and people look at the term primarily from an economic standpoint. How do we continue the growth of resources, power, water, raw materials, without self-destruction and pushing our small planet to environmental collapse.

When you think about biological resources, the key is bio-diversity. A richly diverse biological environment appears to be a stable and resilient one. But what about cultural resources? Oh sh-t, we didn't think of that! Inherent in the ways we make things are millions of small decisions and expression of relationships with the broad range of available materials.

They say that if you take a native out of his or her own habitat and immerse that native in an urban environment, the basic sensitivity to native habitat diminishes significantly within days and weeks.

So an important key to sustainable development is the sensitivity to the environment expressed at least in part through native crafts and the exploration and manipulation of commonly available materials. Oops. Oh sh-t! You don't know what you've got til its gone.

Just as the diverse tropical rain forests are a wealth of unexplored plant-based chemical compounds that may one day cure cancer, the craftsmen throughout the world are the vast storehouse of problem solving patterns and behavior expressing relationship with the material qualities of the natural environment. Kill the diversity inherent in human culture and destroy the planet. We have a world of people out there who just don't get it. Join me in being a force for human cultural renewal. Make something.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

I just found out today that Arrowmont Craft School is facing a major challenge. The Pi Phi Fraternity that owns the property and founded the school as a service mission is planning to sell to a group of Saudi investors, forcing the school to relocate from downtown Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Evidently the large amount of cash is proving shamefully irresistible. The Arrowmont Board of Directors is working hard to preserve the school and you can follow the ongoing discussions on the Arrowmont website.
I have an article on my website about my own teaching experience at Arrowmont. I have taught there five times, and the story of my first experience is on my website and called:Turning Left at the Hard Rock Cafe

If you know any members of Pi Phi, ask them to raise a fuss. Arrowmont is a cultural treasure that must not be abandoned to the whims of Saudi investors or the poor judgment of a small group at the head of the Pi Phi organization. No doubt they are thinking of other wonderful things to do with all that money, not knowing that Arrowmont is wonderful enough and deserves their increased commitment, respect and support.

If you have been to Gatlinburg or have been to Arrowmont, you may find the juxtaposition strange. Arrowmont is a retreat into exploration of human creativity, while Gatlinburg is a mecca of consumption poised at the edge of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Want to add more stuff to your collection of meaningless stuff? Gatlinburg is your kind of place and lots of fun besides. Want to add to your skill and artistic vision in the company of those who share your primal longings for creativity and growth? Check out Arrowmont and then do everything you can to help sustain its beautiful and unique campus environment.
John Grossbohlin sent an article from the Wall St. Journal about the huge shortage of skilled workers in the US, and the shortage of employment for those who've earned college degrees. Part of the article is about Mike Rowe, host of the TV program "Dirty Jobs". He is being recruited by companies desperate to give a sense of pride to those who they would like to recruit. When I think of these programs and their popularity I am reminded of Joe Barry's sign on his wall that states, "I love work. I could sit here and watch it all day."

Otto Salomon's Educational Sloyd was particularly concerned with instilling pride in all work. His plan was that all social classes be given the opportunity to learn hand skills. It was a means of dissolving the social barriers that restrained the intellectual elite from reaching their own heights of intelligence and simultaneously isolated them from an understanding of the depth and value of the contributions made by others.

I woke up this morning thinking of babies and bath water, and what happens when new products arrive in a society and strip away the cultural values inherent in indigenous crafts. You can think of native crafts, like Hemsloyd in Sweden, as being the bulwark against cultural collapse. A novel by historian John Neihart, When the Tree Flowered was about the plains Indians in the days before the whites arrived, and it well illustrated the role of crafts in the imparting of cultural values.

So as we so nobly but blindly interject our wonderful products into the third world through programs similar to the One Laptop per Child movement, I wonder, can we put programs in place that simultaneously sustain the cultural values that have been hanging on by a thread? The following photo shows the other side of the issue. Native crafts sustain cultural values and meaningful relationships as skills and love are imparted, transferred between generations.

Monday, August 25, 2008

I occasionally hear from readers who have found meaning in the Wisdom of the Hands Blog, and know that there has to be something in the soul and experience of these readers that allows them to understand what I try to share. What happens here is a reflection of shared wisdom and thus more meaningful than anything I might try to accomplish alone.

John J. Deal, PH.D is the dean of the School of Music, University of North Carolina, Greensboro and he wrote the following:
I have been involved in education my entire life. Now, as an administrator in the major music school in North Carolina, I am painfully aware of the unpreparedness of modern day students. I long for us to return to a simpler and more meaningful existence and, surely, process of education. One of the articles that got me interested in this thought process was a recent essay by Matthew Crawford, entitled Shopcraft as Soulcraft.

Although I have not been involved with woodworking as long as you have been, it is something that has been in my soul from the time I was a child. I watched for hours as my grandfather made things from wood in his basement workshop—mainly footstools. I learned a few rudimentary techniques, but did not jump into woodworking with both feet until a few years ago. Of course, throughout my career, I have built the requisite bookshelves upon moving into a new residence, but only recently have I become totally enamored with and immersed in wood and, more particularly, what working with wood means for the education of our children. With three very young grandchildren (all under 4 years old), I have spent plenty of waking moments figuring out how to get their heads out of the video screen and sparing them from a world of unchallenging, visual-only stimuli, while introducing them to doing things with their hands. It is my job as grandpa to do that, just as it happened to me. It is a daunting task, but I am buoyed up daily as a result of the thoughts you so eloquently voice in the blog.

Stumbling across your “Wisdom of the Hands” blog has changed me radically. I am looking forward to retiring in another 3 years, and I certainly want to be involved in working with wood. Even before discovering your blog, though, I realized that our youth have not been given the manual training that we might have had the chance to have (although because I was in the college preparatory course track in high school, wood shop was sadly NOT available to me.) I have also become acquainted with the boat building groups for young people that you reference in one of your recent posts. So, my passion for wood and woodworking has now broadened to include a much broader notion of how this fits, not only into my life, but into the lives of young people for whom we serve as models.
No doubt, some of my other readers will find common experience in what John shares. As we give voice to the meaning we find in working with our hands, others will find the encouragement and confidence to bring opportunities to their children and grandchildren and perhaps we will find ways to transform education at large.
What do we do with tools? At this point, I am working on my paper to be presented in Finland and working on the details of my trip. We are taking my daughter Lucy to Columbia University in New York City to begin her Sophomore year and will leave on Wednesday. I'll be taking my research with me and will be trying to compose my thoughts on the laptop while we travel. I spent part of yesterday collecting photos from my files for illustration of the paper, the students at Clear Spring School at work.

So, why are tools important and what do we do with them?
Some tools are used to make things. Think of a knife, hammer and saw.
Some tools are used to communicate. Think of a fountain pen as an example.
Some tools are used to study natural phenomena. Think of a weather vane.
Some tools are used organize things. An example is the mineral collection boxes we make in Earth Sciences at Clear Spring School.
Some tools are dual purpose and are used in both study and the making of objects. Think of a measure or square.

Do you have any others to add?

Thomas Carlyle (785-1891) said:
"Man is a tool using animal. He can use tools, can devise tools; with these the granite mountains melt in light dust before him; he kneads iron as if it were soft paste; seas are his smooth highway, winds and fire his unwearying steeds. Nowhere do you find him without tools; without tools he is nothing, with tools he is all!
Charles H. Hamm, from Mind and Hand:
The great gulf between the aboriginal savage and the civilized man is spanned by the seven hand-tools--the axe, the saw, the plane, the hammer, the square, the chisel and the file. These are the universal tools of the arts, and the modern machine-shop is an aggregation of them rendered automatic and driven by steam.
At this point in human culture, the widely held perception is that the tools of human creativity have been largely supplanted by the computer. And the divide between the advantaged economies and poverty and repression is a digital one. The solution proposed by some is expressed in the 1 laptop per child movement. But has the computer truly supplanted other tools in human creativity? Or is it just the application of greater steam, leading to even less personal involvement and expression? I will try to have an open mind. If any of my readers are willing to add their thoughts, now is the time. You may use the comments function or contact me via email. The email address is at right.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The drawing below is from RJ Drillis' paper Folk Norms and BioMechanics and illustrates that all tools found their origins within the mechanics of the human hand.
But what about the computer? Have you ever counted on your fingers? Or have you ever planned an activity that requires more than two steps? As a teacher of box making, students often ask me about my "order of operations," the precise sequence of steps required to make a box.

Essentially, a computer is a device based on an if-then order of operations originally derived from the numeric arrangement of the human hands, the framework for systematic engagement and measurement of reality made available to our species by having five fingers on each hand.

Do you have doubts? Next time you plan something, take note of your fingers. If you plan something that involves more than two or three steps, take note of what happens to your hands. Do your fingers automatically count the steps? I can tell you with absolute certainty, that even if your fingers don't twitch on their own in response to your scheming, the parts of the brain that control them, if they were observed on MRI would be blazing in light.

These thoughts were no-brainers for those who grew up in an earlier age, but have become significant now while we have largely excluded the hands from our children's exploration and discovery of concrete reality.

The problems are particularly acute for boys in America. We give them games and laptops when we should be giving them hammers and nails and saws. We give them iPods and cell phones at ever earlier ages, when they would best learn from whittling with a knife.

Richard Bazeley sent the photo below along with a quote from one of his students, "I sat outside on a couple of nights and talked to the dogs while I sanded it smooth." The blocks shown are from a project where students are making toys for the town playgroup.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The September/October 2008 issue of Wooden Boat has a great article abut a program in Bronx, New York, "Rocking the Boat," in which inner city youth develop skills, integrity and craftsmanship, making wooden boats. The finished boats are put to use promoting environmental conservation and stewardship. From the article, something you may know from your own experience:
Subjects like geometry that might seem abstract in school suddenly take on real-life meaning when the task at hand is to puzzle out the complicated shape of a stem rabbet or cut the transom bevels for a 14' Whitehall pulling boat.
The philosopher's stone in education is the hand. Engage the hands and you engage enthusiasm for learning. We ignore the education of the hands at the risk of civilization. The interesting thing is that no craftsman can make a thing without describing his or her inner most values, and what we see when their work is done is descriptive of inner being. There are those who would invest in gated communities to keep people out. Those who are wise invest in the lives of young people, offering challenges that require effort and skill and lead to renewal of culture and community values.
From the newly arrived copy of Wooden Boat, September/October 2008, editorial by Matthew P. Murphy, The Language of Craft, describing the recent 3 week teaching visit by Djamal Kazi-Tani at the WoodenBoat School:
The language of boatbuilding is universal. "Sometimes," said Kazi-Tani, "when the teacher speaks quickly, I do not understand, but when he shows...when we pick up the tools and work, it is very clear."
Most of our woodworking projects at Clear Spring School are designed as an extension of a particular area of study, and this sometimes leads to similar projects being done at different grade levels. By slightly changing the tools used in a project it is very easy for it to be engaging for students at a variety of age and skill levels.

The 3rd and 4th grade students made boats as an activity related to their study of the oceans and the 9th and 10th grade students were studying meteorology.

At all grade levels we use some basic design tools that reinforce spatial sense. Folded paper and scissors are a great way to create designs for symmetrical objects. By folding paper in half, then cutting it to shape, when the paper is unfolded, both sides are designed at once. This technique is closely related to the use of half models in the design of real boats.

First take a piece of paper, cut it to the size of the board you will use to cut your boat hull. Then fold it in half and use scissors to cut it to the desired shape. Lay the paper on the stock and trace around it to transfer the design onto wood, or use spray craft adhesive to affix the template to the wood. It can be peeled off after the cuts are made.

With the youngest children, we use Japanese style pull saws to make simple cuts bringing the bow of the sailboat to a V shape. In order to help in accuracy of cut, we put the wood in the vise so that the cut line is straight up and down. This helps the child develop a greater sense of their posture, and arm motions during the cut, and also provides better results. As a step up in difficulty and skill, we add the coping saw which offers the possibility of a curved hull shape, but greater difficulty and risk of messing up.

In high school the cuts forming the hull are made with a scroll saw with the table tilted so that the hull develops a more boat hull shape that can be further shaped with coarse sanding blocks.

We have a slightly different approach for making the keel. With the youngest students, cutting the keel from galvanized sheet metal is too tough for young hands, so I make a few keels before class starts and then demonstrate making more as needed. In the upper grades, students can design and cut their own. It can be somewhat frustrating cutting metal for the first time. But what is the value of success if it isn’t preceded by effort? We use the same paper folding technique to develop the shape for the double keel. Prop the bow of the boat on a book or block of wood and the double keel serves as a stand when the boat is not in the water.

Sails are fun! We make the sails in the same manner used in small olympic class Lasers; a sleeve at the leading edge that slides in place over the mast. This involves use of the sewing machine, and while sewing was once a common household activity, for most children, even as old as 9th and 10th grades, sewing a sail is their first exposure to the process. I make extra sails for any student too uncomfortable with the process. But even children in 3rd and 4th grades can operate a sewing machine with careful supervision.

After the sail is made, we cut the 1/4 in. dowel masts to length, and use the drill press to drill a hole in the deck for it to fit. We use a fencing staple at the stern of the boat as a place to tie the loose corner of the sail (clue line). After the sail is made, we use fabric pens to decorate the sails. This is an intense activity that engages the students while the teacher can help those lagging behind or having difficulties requiring special help. And then of course, the students can paint their boats!

The 9th and 10th graders held boat races on a local pond, testing their design variations.

Much greater effort and refinement can go into making working model sail boats, but still, this is a fun project that kids of any age will enjoy.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

"...the "chores" that were a necessary component of our grandparent's lives likely lifted their emotions in powerful ways."

This simple statement from Kelly Lambert helps us to understand something that has been puzzling travelers and authors visiting the poorest places in the world. How can we account for the happiness of indigenous peoples in comparison to the relative unhappiness of those in the world's wealthiest nations?

On what seems another subject, video gaming, Ed Miller, Program Director of Alliance for Childhood is sending a draft of an article commissioned by the Alliance concerning the supposed effectiveness of video games in children's learning. I hope to be able to share some additional insight soon.

One of the games children are really loving these days is Guitar Hero. It involves game controllers shaped like guitars. My daughter Lucy said that her friends who really play guitar are likely to be good at playing Guitar Hero. But the kids who are good at Guitar Hero are very unlikely to show any skill in the handling of a real guitar.

So, what is there about the virtual world that makes it so appealing? I got a call this morning from a dear friend who is dying from cancer. When Joe said "Goodbye, Doug," there was a sense of finality as though we may not speak again. And we may not.

In the virtual world, we move on unscathed by life. If we die we are reborn for another chance, if the system fails, we reboot. In real life, there is suffering, pain, exquisite beauty, touching and being touched by real lives, making real things that last generations, sharing with those we love, the beauty we have conceived and the skills we have mastered. Perhaps some of that explains an old Zen saying, "Poverty is your greatest treasure, never trade it for an easy life."

But trade it we have. We have made things too easy for our own good, thus preventing our own happiness and the true happiness of our own children to unfold. So the answer seems to be that we must make it hard again, by choice, by attempting to make old fingers do new things, by stretching to master new concepts, by turning off the TV (and computer), to play music, to work in gardens, canning fruit, preparing meals for our families, and setting examples of effort to create, to make and to serve.

And while we are at it, let's make some things from real wood.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The following is from Kelly Lambert, author of the Scientific American article mentioned yesterday and Lifting Depression
For a brain that evolved to move the body around in complex ways to interact with the world around us, our increasingly effortless lifestyles result in an unengaged brain that receives few reminders that we have meaningful control over our environments. Our brains' interpretation of a lack of control in our increasingly chaotic lives leads to greater stress and anxiety that often culminates in the symptoms of depression. Incorporating physical activity that leads to tangible meaningful rewards in our lives, something I call effort-driven rewards, can act as a form of a mental vitamin that builds emotional resiliency. Even better, tasks that utilize our hands are especially effective considering that a large proportion of our brains' "real estate" is directed toward their movement. Thus, the "chores" that were a necessary component of our grandparent's lives likely lifted their emotions in powerful ways.

What Dr. Lambert describes can be observed in your own life. Woodworkers have called their time in the woodshop "sawdust therapy". All those who have had the opportunity to engage in tangible creative work shared with others, know the feelings of emotional vibrancy that emerge and sustain every aspect of self, including the brain power that enables clear thinking and problem solving. So the question becomes, "Is this something of value to pass on to our children?" So far, not so good. We are making the wrong choices by providing our children entertaining distractions from real life. Now who wants real life when we can live in perfect fantasy and delusion?

Peter Follansbee emailed about a visitor to his workshop at Plimoth Plantation:
I make reproductions of seventeenth-century furniture, all done with 19th & 20th century hand tools, that replicate a period tool kit…so lots of saws, chisels, planes, hatchets, benches & a pole lathe… I keep the workshop full to the brim of works in progress, sections of riven stock, and scads of tools. So there is plenty to see, in addition to the work underway at the bench. One day a young kid, less than 10 yrs old, walked up & asked me “Do you have anything here that’s 3D?” - now, that was a loaded question. I guessed at what he meant, but wanted to be sure, so I told him I was not sure what he was asking me, and asked him if he could explain. He said “ You know, it looks really real…”

I tried to explain that everything in the room was 3D and in fact quite real… but it was a wasted effort… Off he went, looking for holograms or some such thing.
On another subject, I was contacted by a reader who had discovered the blog while doing research on his earlier life. He was a student in a photo taken by a photographer from the Omaha World Herald of my mother's Kindergarten class in January 1972. Curtis Sallis USMC Ret. remembers my mother as his very best teacher, and my mother remembers his very special gifts. Hearing from Curtis has brought a great deal of pleasure to my 87 year old mother. She often wonders about the hundreds of children who passed through her instruction and it means a lot to know that they are OK and that her caring is remembered.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Readers interested in skilled hands should check out Peter Follansbee whose work is shown in the two images below. Visit his blog for more images of fine craftsmanship.
You have probably heard the concept, "taking an academic interest" in something. From An Asperger Dictionary of Everyday Expressions By Ian Stuart-Hamilton
Something of academic interest is of limited usefulness and may be considered an inconsequential detail.
If any of my readers has another interpretation of this, I would like to know. You will note the difference between an academic approach or interest, and that of a craftsman. The academic takes idle interest in learning, having no ultimate objective in bringing change or utilizing the knowledge gathered, whereas the craftsman's objective is the direct and immediate use of the information, testing hypotheses through the application of acquired skill. This simple distinction explains everything about American education. Whereas Commenius, Pestalozzi, Froebel, Cygnaeus, Salomon, Dewey and other early educators called for learning through doing, modern education stops with the acquisition of information. It is what happens when you leave crafts out of the classroom, or raise children under the influence of computers. You end up with children who can't write with pencil or pen, can't braid or do the most simple crafts and have no foundation for exploration of more complex systems or realities.

The paper I mentioned to you this morning from Scientific American is particularly interesting as it applies to intelligence. Every expression of intelligence is a matter of energy. If you are stripped and sapped of energy, you are made stupid as a consequence. Depression does that. The creative use of the hands in skilled effort restores the sense of well-being and control from which emotional energies arise to nourish intellect. This all can be described through an analysis of the generation and distribution of neurohormones, but it is also something you can witness in your own life, no experts required.
From an article in the August/Septermber 2008 Scientific American "Depressingly Easy," by Kelly Lambert
The Mental Perils of Ease
1>> Rates of depression have risen in recent decades, at the same time that people are enjoying time-saving conveniences such as microwave ovens, e-mail, prepared meals, and machines for washing clothes and mowing lawns.
2>> People of earlier generations, whose lives were characterized by greater efforts just to survive, paradoxically, were mentally healthier. Human ancestors also evolved in conditions where hard physical work was necessary to thrive.
3>> By denying our brains the rewards that come from anticipating and executing complex tasks with our hands, we undercut our mental well-being.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

How you can help... I am beginning work on my paper for Finland and if you would like to share any observations or academic resources, now or for the next two weeks would be the time. The abstract of my presentation is as follows, and will be illustrated by kids at Clear Spring School making various kinds of tools for their own learning:
Tools, Hands and the Expansion of Intellect

Abraham Maslow (American Psychologist 1908-1970): “It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” So what if the only tool we offer in education is a computer? As powerful as that computer may be, does it tempt children (or ourselves) to view all things as virtual or unreal? There is magic in the manipulation of real tools and real materials. They engage the heart and soul of the learner, and we are endangered by our abandonment of the commonplace and mundane tools that form the foundation of human creativity.

But there is more… research on gesture, the new field of embodied cognition, and MRI investigation of the brain reveal the significance of the varied and rhythmic use of the hands in the development of human intellect. We are made stupid when our hands are stilled.

Most American schools and homes are involved in a risky experiment in which the common tools of artists and craftsmen are abandoned. The Clear Spring School, a small independent school in Northwest Arkansas is different. We are on the cutting edge in the use of tools. In fact, our children make their own tools, from hand-carved ink pens based on the 1885 Nääs Sloyd model series to the looms our children use in weaving and textiles. When the child makes the tools used in his or her own instruction, there is a depth of interest and understanding that cannot be approached otherwise.

Keywords: tools, tool-making, computer, Sloyd, gesture, embodied cognition.
I have already received the following helpful notes from Glenn Kleiman, executive director of the Friday Institute, author of the highly praised 2001 article Myths and Realities about Technology in K-12 Schools
I certainly agree that children should have lots of experience with real tools and real materials, and that virtual environments should be an addition to, not a substitute for, hands-on activities of all types. While perhaps working with virtual environments is coming to be a new intelligence in Gardner's sense of multiple intelligences, it remains critical that we provide children with opportunities to develop all their "intelligences". (I say this as one who was not allowed to take wood shop in high school, since I was in the academic not vocational track, and who still likes to tinker and build.) Having children work with arts and crafts materials, legos, fabrics, wood, and all the rest is very important. Learning to use a range of tools is important, and having children create their own is very cool. The type of understanding children can gain from working with things they can build, disassemble, and understand is something that doesn't happen when they work with digital "black boxes." For example, one can see, understand, and explore the mathematics of ratios with concrete references through working with the gears of a bicycle, gaining types of insights that aren't available with a CPU.

Friday, August 15, 2008

I acquired my tickets for Helsinki today, and will be leaving on the 21st of September for a visit to the earliest home of Sloyd. In addition, I've been asked by the editor of the Fine Woodworking website to post a blog of my travels, so I will get to share some insight into sloyd education and the woodwork of Finland with American woodworking enthusiasts. At some point, I hope the world really awakens to the wonders of the human hand, that we all realize that through it we are both deeply engaged in reality, and empowered in personal creativity.

Here in the US, we are gearing up for a new school year, but Richard Bazeley, down under in Australia is showing some results from his 7th year woodworking class. They have been carving spoons from air dried pine. Richard says:
My year 7 class has just left after a very enthusiastic session of spoon carving. Some have taken their spoons for homework till next week. I look forward to a few surprises. Soft open grain stuff seems to work well. The students carve out the bowl using carving gouges and sand smooth. I cut out the rough shape on the bandsaw then they shape the handles with files and sand smooth.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

It has been exciting around here the past couple days, as we reached the decision for me to attend the Crafticulation Conference in Helsinki, September 24-26, 2008. I had my abstract of a paper selected for presentation, so I will be busy documenting the use of tool making as an educational activity at Clear Spring, and researching some necessary points for my presentation. Finland is overrun these days by foreign educators trying to learn the secret to their success in the education of their children. So no doubt, my trip will be an opportunity for me to learn a great deal. It will also be an opportunity for me to share an understanding of the wisdom of our hands... how we, each and all, are made more intelligent, more confident, and more capable when learning comes to us through the exploration and creativity of our own hands.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Rustic and really rustic.

This is the trial fitting of my rustic cabinet on a contemporary base. The cabinet is made to store wine glasses and this style of cabinet, contrasting woods, small cabinet body on legs was made popular by James Krenov.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The October issue of Woodwork Magazine arrived in my mailbox today, with my latest Sloyd article inside. The article is based on my visit to Nääs, Sweden in May of 2006, and some might wonder why something from the 19th century would be at all important in the 21st. If you are curious, buy it when it hits the bookstores next week.

Today I've been making a contemporary walnut base for a rustic cabinet. I am out on a limb. Who knows how it will turn out. But then if we already knew such things, what fun would there be? And why would we make the effort? Tomorrow I'll have more to show.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Luke Townsley has a blog aggregator that collects posts from woodworking blogs related to hand tools and their use. Luke's site Woodworking™ is a great way to keep up with the musings of a number of hand-tool advocates. At some point, I hope researchers will look into the therapeutic aspects of woodworking and other crafts. It is a shame that there is lots of money available to research the questionable use of drugs to moderate feelings and behavior, but no money to explore the obvious: When we are creatively engaged through our hands in the making of things that enhance the beauty and meaning present in our lives and the lives of others, we reinforce access to feelings of emotional and mental wellbeing associated with mental health.
This morning I received an email from a friend in Norway whose son is in the hospital for drug addiction. There are a variety of things that come into play in understanding why such things happen. I am not a psychologist, and no one in their right academic mind set would apply much value to the blogging of a craftsman...

You might listen if I were to tell you how to cut a perfect miter, but distrust my advice beyond my certified credentials. So much for common sense. As a culture we have banished it along with school wood shop. But I am compelled to share my common sense despite my lack of credentials.

Every artist and craftsman I know (and I know a lot) use their work to moderate and control their feelings and mental outlook. If you are an artist or craftsman you can look to your own experience to test the principle. By getting lost in our work, transcending the sense of self, losing all track of time in our creative efforts we generate the same neurohormones that we excite through mind altering drugs and alcohol. From the standpoint of evolution, these neurohormones have been the driving force of human culture, leading us to make the choices of craftsmanship and creativity on which our civilization is based. But when those neurohormones and their generation in the human body are distorted, delivered in large doses and with ease through the ingestion of pharmacological substances rather than earned through behavior and expressed through craftsmanship, the consequences are tragic.

I've told this story before. When mass produced goods from England and German were introduced in Sweden, diminishing the value of "hemsloyd", home crafted work, Sweden faced major social upheaval, with many turning to the manufacture of liquor to generate the income lost through the devaluation of their hand craft industries. The damage done can be long term. For evidence look at the alcoholism and its consequences for the American Indian. This same process, undermining personal creativity has taken place over and over, culture after culture throughout the world. We are genetically encoded to seek the pleasure from the neurohormones that drive our species toward personal and collective creativity.

We ignore the needs of our children for creative expression only to introduce and enforce their tragic addiction to other things.

Friday, August 08, 2008

I had been wondering what to do with a lid stay and handles for my rustic chest and came up with the perfect solution thanks to my daughter Lucy who while on the R/V Langseth this summer doing seismic research has been learning to tie knots. I first tried my hand at a Back Splice but found it to be too bulky. My compromise was to unwind the rope part way and braid the tails, then secure the ends with wire staples into the wood. One thing you can say about what you see here: Really rustic!
For those who are curious, there will always be more questions than answers, and for those who make things, there will always be better ways, yet to be imagined. There will always be improvements to be made on what has been made before. For those who are in the midst of change the driving force is usually the quest for a better way, and yet, not every effort is met with success, and every effort brings one face to face with unintended consequences.

My own curiosity at the moment has to do with simple things. In Swedish, the question has to do with Vänster and Höger, left and right, the two sides of things, in mirror opposition, reflecting the interior dimensions of our own human consciousness.

I am particularly interested in elementary education because my mother is a retired kindergarten teacher and it was a topic of family interest throughout my middle school, high school and college years. There were tools that she used in assessing reading readiness having to do with the integration of the two halves of the brain. One was skipping. Another was the ability to tie one's shoes. Both present evidence of the integration of hemispheres. Now children are being pushed toward reading and math at ever earlier ages regardless of evidence indicating lack of readiness for learning success.

It is interesting that when new things are introduced so much of the old is completely discarded as being no longer relevant. A great deal can be learned about human intelligence, perception and comprehension by observing our relationship with vänster and höger. For example look at the algebraic formula, its balance left and right. Or the "flipping story stick" technique I use in box making to provide a frame of reference for machining matching hinge mortises on the left and right sides of a box. The ability to integrate one's perceptive framework, left and right, is essential to the success of a child's efforts in a number of academic areas. This ability was traditionally reinforced by such kinds of activities as braiding and tying shoes. And the ability called "spatial sense" is directly related to abilities in science, math and art.

Now we enter the age of the mouse and the 2-D monitor and we think we are in heaven and have precipitously abandoned the traditional learning activities. But it is extremely important to be engaged in full dimensional reality, and this means both left and right. We have no way of measuring or understanding the unintended consequences of failing to engage our children in learning from physical reality.

My apologies about seeming to ramble today as I collect my thoughts for a presentation in Helsinki, about tools and the development of intelligence. It is interesting that left and right, vänster and höger, were very much in the thoughts of Otto Salomon as he contemplated the human body and bringing his students to an intellectual awakening. If you are lucky enough to have a copy of Salomon's Theory of Educational Sloyd you will find on p. 54 the observation: "It is important that both sides of the body be harmoniously developed." Early educators like Salomon were much more aware of the interrelationship between mind and body, a concept based on intense observation and that is being reawakened in the new field of scientific study (and curiosity) "embodied consciousness."

Thursday, August 07, 2008

My article about Nääs and my visit there in May 2006 has come out in Woodwork Magazine, and I am starting to get notes from readers. I have yet to receive my copy in the mail, but so far the article seems to be awakening further interest in Sloyd.

If you are interested in making your own visit to Nääs, you can use google earth and type in the coordinates:

57º 48' 58.67" N 12º 23' 21.90" E

which will put you in view of the Sloyd woodworking building. Several of my photos of Nääs are featured on Google earth. Wherever you see a blue square click with your mouse. Across the bridge from the Sloyd Teacher training school the penisula (nääs) that gave the school its name. On the peninsula are August Abrahamson's slott or palace, the original dairy barn dating to the 18th century, and the gravesite of August Abrahamson and Otto Salomon.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

My rustic wall cabinet is nearly complete.
I have been working on the small cabinets that are to be offered as variations on making a rustic chest. As you can see I am at the stage of oil finish. The hinges are mortised and ready to install. The taller cabinet will be wall hung. The smaller, deeper one will go on a stand. Both have natural edged hickory doors.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Today I am finishing the rustic chest and installing hinges on the small cabinets using the shop-made butt hinge routing jig I made last week. First photo shows application of Danish oil using a common household sprayer. It is much faster than brushing into corners. The second photo shows the butt hinge jig in use.

Monday, August 04, 2008

I now have a slide scanner which allows me to go back in my past to the days before digital and share some of my early work. When I completed the cherry china cabinet shown below, I considered it my "masters thesis" in wood. It had hand-cut dovetailed drawers, tenons that fit in tapered mortises, expanded and locked in place with walnut wedges, floating panels throughout (even at rear), carved cornice and base moldings and turn latches. Inside are solid cherry shelves on adjustable supports for housing china and glassware. It was completed in 1982.

The photo below shows the almost finished rustic chest. I will sand the rest of it as I've done the top, and apply a Danish oil finish, then proceed to finish the wall cabinet and free standing cabinet done in the same theme.

Yesterday, I mentioned the need for lifting the regulatory burden on skills-based small business. First of all, what I mean by skills-based small businesses are those businesses that are actually too small for stand-alone management. I mean businesses like my own in which a single person does both the production and management. Can you imagine how much of my would-be productive time is consumed by meeting unproductive regulatory concerns? Can you imagine what happens when someone like myself is in the position of needing help in the production of work? The system and its regulatory complications deter many of us from hiring help and sharing our skills to train new generations of craft artists. The regulatory system prevents overall growth of our economic sector.

The first thing is to bring the government to acknowledge our special status and potential. Given the fact that the entire government from top to bottom consists almost entirely of managers and not producers, that will be no easy task. Secondly, a means must be offered to lessen the standard paperwork burden. Why should individual craftsmen needing to hire help face the same regulatory burden as a management based business with hundreds of employees? It makes no sense. Thirdly, there should be some means through which very small businesses like my own could offer some degree of health insurance to employees. That broken down system on its own would deter most American craft artists from ever considering business growth. And yet, you can do the numbers. If every self-employed tradesman, artist or craftsman were to hire a single helper, offer some level of training to that hire, we would see rapid business growth and an increase in creative capacity.

But, as you know, most politicians have grown up in the management based economic model. They know very little about the use of skilled hands in the making of our world. When we separate the hands from our own understanding of human intelligence, what we have now is what we get. You might notice that we live in idiocy, top to bottom. The energy crisis is the result of distorted politics. The housing crisis is a result of poor politics. The deep division between labor and the management class is the result of poor politics, and all of these are the result of the failure to understand the wisdom of our hands. Now my short rant is complete. I'm heading back to the woodworking which is a great deal more fun than the distracting and destructive regulation of very small businesses in the USA.

I was notified by, a "blog aggregator," that Wisdom of the Hands will no longer be linked due to having less than 50% hand tools content. If you are used to coming here following a link from there, please book mark this site. This site is not about hand tools. It is about hand skills and the implication of those skills on the quality of culture and the quality of human life.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

The following is a question from a reader in Australia:
I am seeking some advice I have carefully watched your Basic Box Making DVD. My query is with the thicknesser. You don’t seem to get a tail in or tail out leaving that scoop at both ends of your timber. I have watched it over & over gone out to the workshop and tried again. Could you advise me of what I am doing wrong? It is driving me insane. I also hope it is alright to contact you for advice.
I think what you are describing is "snipe" where the cutterhead on the planer dips into the stock a bit as the wood is released by the infeed roller of the planer. Snipe generally leaves a deeper cut across the width of the board, 3 or 4 inches from the end that can be difficult to sand out. There are some planers that are better at controlling snipe than others. The height of the table rollers can make a difference and for planing thin stock, putting a sheet of plywood or melamine over the surface of the table can help by bypassing them. The in-table rollers are intended to ease the planing of rough stock, but are unnecessary for preparing stock for box making.

The infeed and outfeed rollers exert a great deal of force holding the stock down firmly to the table, and sometimes the stock springs up slightly when the pressure is released, allowing the stock to lift slightly into the cutterhead. I generally lift up on the stock as it exits the planer. What this does is create some leverage on the stock, holding it more tightly to the table, counteracting the effect of the roller release and reducing the potential for snipe.

I don't know if any of this will help. I don't know what kind of planer you are using, or whether the stock is straight as it is being planed. There are lots of variables in surfacing materials, so without knowing a great deal more, I can only speculate. But the easiest thing to do first is to hold the stock up on the outfeed end during planing and see what happens.

Woodworking tools function on the basis of Newtonian Physics, even though at times they may seem to have a bit of Heisenberg uncertainty thrown in to boot. The key is understanding the way things work and knowing that any problem unrelated to the space-time continuum can be solved with a little study and by holding your mouth just right.
Every 4 years, I feel like going on a rant concurrent with the presidential election, and even though I know very few people will read this and some may not agree with me, I will take this time to inform my readers that most US politicians regardless of political party have virtually no understanding of small businesses and what it takes to make them grow. They can't be blamed for this. They live in self-imposed vacuums of a sort. They talk about small business and the need to encourage it, but when it comes to an understanding of what our needs are, they haven't a clue.
The Small Business Act states that a small business concern is "one that is independently owned and operated and which is not dominant in its field of operation."
So, in many cases, a "small business" may have many hundreds of employees and businesses as small as my own are lumped in and essentially ignored even though very small businesses are the ones most capable of expansion and most capable of stimulating economic growth.

Engagement in reality through the lens offered by the hands offers a different approach to business definition, not based on size but on structure and potential. Management based business models have a person or organizational structure that stands apart from its productive capacity. In essence, it is based on the model presented by separation between the hand and intellect.

A skills based model, recognizes the integration of head with hand, intellect with productive capacity, and is based on the model of a skilled craftsman. If you enable a skilled craftsman to hire employees without the huge burden imposed by government regulations, and the book keeping burden required to comply with them, you have created a situation in which craftsmen can double their productive capacity, double employment, and impart essential skills to future generations. The incredible potential that skills-based small business expansion offers economic growth is far greater than can be imagined by those currently in government.

This is a model and a view that comes from my observation of the economy through the hands-on perspective of a skilled craftsman. I am interested in receiving feedback on this concept to help me to refine my thoughts. Please feel free to contact me via email through the link at right or add your comments below.

In the coming days, I will offer proposals to enable skills-based small business expansion. Who knows whether anyone will notice. I was reading today that research at Columbia University has confirmed the 6 degrees of separation. That means I'm just 6 people away from either McCain or Obama. If you have enough wisdom in your hands to know what I'm talking about, help me to make some connections.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Joe Barry sent me a page from Hemsloyd magazine entitled Slödja med glädje och fantasi and of course it makes me wish I could read Swedish. The title could be roughly translated as craftwork with joy and fantasy, and the article points to the legacy of Carl Malmsten who during his time at Nääs rebelled against the insistence on the making of utilitarian objects.

Many educators in Sweden believe that Sloyd should be the means through which children's creative lives and fantasy are encouraged. And of course, I wonder why it can't do both... encourage imaginative work and skilled craftsmanship.

The photos below show samples from the article published in 1989.

I can't help but look back on the earlier times as being better than what we have now. Then educators argued about what children should be making. Now they've almost completely lost the understanding that children should be making things at all.

Subscribers to Woodwork magazine, should look for my article about Nääs in this week's mail. I am hoping for a revival of interest in children making things, in and out of school. Whether children are making practical things to bring beauty and craftsmanship to the family home, or objects of play and fantasy to bring joy and curiosity into their own lives makes little difference in comparison to lives devoid of the meaning and pleasure that skilled craftsmanship and artistic imagination can bring.

Friday, August 01, 2008

We finished the box making class at ESSA today. shown in the first photo is the class, minus Bob Farris who had to leave early this afternoon. Each student made a box from resawn ash with a four corner grain match and floating panel top, sawn from the base. Each made a keyed miter joint on the first box, but had a chance to be more experimental on a second box. Each box became personalized in interesting ways, making each box as unique as the individual who made it.

We had a wonderful week of box making.