Monday, June 01, 2009

the 800 pound sore thumb in the room

This week I am cleaning my classroom, making boxes, and attempting to complete a writing assignment... not an assignment from someone else but for myself to further my Wisdom of the Hands project.

There is a simple lesson that a craftsman learns from experience about order of operations. Do the hard part first. For example, if I were to do a piece of carved furniture, held together with dovetailed joints, and dovetails were hard for me and the carving easy, I would do the dovetails first so in case I was to mess up badly requiring the replacement of materials, I at least would only be discarding and starting over only the dovetailed materials and not the carving that I had invested so much time to complete.

Taking care of the hard part first is a reasonable maxim for other things too. For example, in writing about the Wisdom of the Hands, the hardest part is dealing with the 800 pound sore thumb in the room. We have had many long years of animosity between social classes based on whether a employment is considered to require primarily hand skills or academically derived knowledge. I strongly suspect that whatever I say may be regarded by some as anti-academic. On the other side, when I had my first job outside employment in my father's hardware store, loading railway cars at a gravel pit, the older men called me "college boy" with a derisive tone, until I had proven myself through hard work climbing in and out and patching railway cars 72 hours per week. So, help me here as I wander around a difficult subject and as I address the hard part first.

We all know the term "purely academic" and what it means is that the idea is purely hypothetical and not to be tested against real circumstances. The way of the craftsman is completely opposite pole from "purely academic." What we do at the very core of our method of operations is to test things in real life. For example, a lump of clay on a potters wheel is first tested for proper moisture content, a thing the potter feels in the texture of the clay, by squeezing it and comparing with past experience. He or she then centers the clay on the wheel by compressing the spinning clay tightly in both hands. Then the thumbs are inserted at the center of the spinning form and the two hands working in perfect harmony manipulate the spinning clay to the desired shape. With practice, this task can become purely mechanical, freeing the mind to wander as the hands, arms and body manipulate the wheel and the clay, even knowing when to add water to lubricate the hands, without ever having the mind called back from its wandering, unless of course the attention of the hands wanders too far, the clay goes out of center, the pot begins to collapse and the spinning form calls the mind's attention back to make the assessment whether or not the pot can be saved.

You can, I think see how a manual operation, involving the hands requires a closely attended feedback loop, very much like the process of scientific observation. Another example might explain this further. You want to plane an edge on a board, so you mount it in the vise, adjust the plane to a depth based on past experience in relation to the type of wood, you make an assessment of the grain direction, align your hands and body in relation to the wood and make your first stroke. All of the first parts of this are very much like formulating a scientific hypothesis and that first stroke is a test of your hypothesis. You may get a perfect shaving from your first stroke, or you may learn that you have misinterpreted the grain and will need to reverse the wood in the vise to get the best results. Or lacking the required attention to the workings of the plane, you can work mechanically to haphazard results. You can see that the idle speculation of the purely academic and the purely mechanical each have their shortcomings. I refer you to yesterday's post for expression of the ideal as expressed by Turner:
"The final object to be attained, with the industrial class, is to make them thinking laborers; while for the professional class we should desire to make laborious thinkers; the production of goods to feed and adorn the body being the final end of one class of pursuits, and the production of thought to do the same for the mind the end of the other."
The education of all hands is required to accomplish this noble goal. My explanation will go a bit deeper tomorrow. Please feel free to ask for clarification if some of this seems obtuse. My goal is to make my case for hands-on learning clear regardless of social and economic class or academic standing, and I suspect that may not be an easy thing to accomplish, at least not while there is an 800 pound sore thumb in the room.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous6:06 PM

    "Do the hard part first" is the most basic idea I pass on to students as I try to teach them how to study, something that high schools don't teach.