Sunday, August 08, 2010

lessons from making

I have been reading Mark Frauenfelder's book Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World. Mark, having grown up in our consumer culture and having found it lacking, became editor of Make Magazine, and thus became immersed in the DIY culture, even to the point of trying a few interesting things for himself, and describing his adventure, his failings and mistakes as well as his measured success.

It makes for a good read. And so what is the relationship between making and the development of skill? Is it enough that we stop buying so much stuff and begin making things for ourselves that will be of beginner/novice dubious and disappointing quality?

There is a natural human compulsion to make things better, to seek replicable success over embarrassing failure. As a craftsman compares results with the work of other craftsmen, he or she sees areas in which improvement can take place, and is then compelled to test new methods and refinements and develop greater skill. And so while we may begin by making crap, we do get better over time.

In the case of American education, as we look at other models we might catch a glimpse of where things have gone wrong and where things might be improved. As a craftsman, attending my first national craft shows, I could see areas in which my fit of parts and finish of object could be improved to catch up. Later, as a teacher, I visited the wood shop at the University of Helsinki, and met kindergarten teachers learning to work wood, so that they could put their children to work learning by making objects. In the US, with our fixation on reading and math, there is little time or interest in such things. But in the early days of manual arts training in the US, the important point made was that through engaging children in woodworking, they would learn all their other subjects in less time because they would be more deeply emotionally and actively engaged in schooling.

Is this a matter impossible for Americans to understand?

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