Sunday, May 22, 2011

failings and grace

This morning I listened to parts of an interview with Mike Rose, author of The Mind at Work, about his new book, Possible Lives, the Promise of Public Education in America, on the hopeful, grace-filled, elements of American Education. Mike reminds that while education in America has been taking an incredible beating in the press and by American politicians and corporate CEOs either trying to score points or make big bucks, there are some wonderful things happening in the lives of children and teachers in schools. There are schools that work and teachers that make them work, and if we look toward what has been demonstrated as possible, the chance of meaningful change is brought to the fore. Mike finds public schools and teachers that can inspire and lead the way. From the interview:
"As we continue to emphasize -- almost exclusively -- the economic, vocational purpose of schooling, and we tie that to a particular technocratic kind of assessment, that is, the standardized, high stakes test, we end up with an education system that narrows, rather than expands, and certainly doesn’t befit a democratic society...We know from research that particular subject areas are de facto being addressed less in our schools: the arts, music, literature, history, some of the social studies."
If you look back, the same dilemma in American education has been with us for some time. I was reminded of this by recent reports on the decline of engineering in the US, related to our failure to launch enough young engineers to fill the positions available for them. Calvin Woodward of Washington University was considered one of the two fathers of manual arts in the US, and like John Runkle at MIT, started his manual training program because his engineering students, most deficient in  practical hands-on experience, were coming to university unprepared for success. It was a situation very much like today, and so it is worthwhile to look back. (Though very few are looking in that direction.)

In Dec. 1885, Dr. Woodward spoke at a public gathering in Boston at the invitation of various leading citizens including the mayor, the superintendent of schools, the governor of Massachusetts, and the president of MIT. He quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson:
"We are students of words; we are shut up in schools and colleges and recitation room from ten to fifteen years, and come out at the last with a bag of wind, a memory of words, and do not know a thing. We cannot use our hands, or our legs, or eyes, or our arms... In a hundred high schools and colleges, this warfare against common sense still goes on."
And so Dr. Woodward stated the problem that is still with us today. He also proposed a simple one line epigram for educational reform. He said, "My educational creed I put into six words, Put the whole boy to school." As you and I know from our own learning, where the hands are engaged, the heart and mind are also engaged and the whole boy (and girl) follows. From the vantage point offered by our human hands, we know where the arts, music, manual arts, laboratory science, field trips, camping, nature studies and so many other fields of human adventure fit in American schooling and why they are too important to continue to neglect. Neglect the hands on the other hand, and intelligence and educational enthusiasm wither on the vine.

Make, fix and create.


  1. Would you agree, since most sports involve use of the hands, mind, and other parts of the body, kids should receive grades and credits for the sports they play, just as they do for other school subjects?

    I am a silent advocate of this. I see sports as skill, art, and specialized intelligence; not unlike music, art, and the kind of engineering training you mentioned.

  2. I think kids should also receive acknowledgment in the form of credit for outside the classroom learning. Internship, on the job training and other forms of learning should be acknowledged within our educational environment, but then of course that tends to undermine the authority of the establishment in education, so it likely won't happen except at the highest levels in which elderly masters of various forms of entertainment get honorary doctorates from prestigious universities. I'm not sure that grades are necessary for any of the above. Grades establish and maintain an extrinsic relationship with learning in which it is measured in an arbitrary and out of context manner.

    Sports definitely build aspects of character that are important to future success. And their true measure comes in that success.

  3. As a former athlete and coach I would agree that sports and classrooms subjects should be treated more as equals. Character growth is what needs to be the focus for all subjects and activities in our schools. This should be what we want for our country. Character development is the foundation of Sloyd and other successful training programs. Activities like woodworking and sports are simply the vehicles for this kind of growth. Unfortunately, character is not quantifiable and numerical results are what our government is demanding from our schools.

    Attention educators- it's time to be creative.

  4. Chris, I'm not sure that they should be treated as equals, but rather that they be treated as integral. Wouldn't football be a great exercise in physics and calculus? If we were wise enough to use it for that? The boundaries between disciplines are arbitrary and less than useful. People think that working with tools is one thing, doing math another, but math is diminished by neglecting reasonable use for it, and tool work is diminished by failing to utilize it in the study of math. Mindless hand work is idiocy. Handless mind work is much the same.

  5. Sports as credit subjects, makes it easier to teach students in a holistic way. Sports have math, business, health, communications, science and other components. These are rarely taught to athletes, except in abstract form.

    A math problem in school may require finding a batting average in a word problem relating to baseball. Otherwise, math remains abstract. Same is true in other credit subjects, as related to sports and other fields.

    Students are more engaged in subjects, if shown how the subjects fit into their daily lives. This is one of many ways our current U.S. educational system is failing students.

    One thing I commend about what you do, which the U.S. educational system also fails to do, is you teach kids to be entreprenuers, through creative thinking, applied to real world situations. U.S. education teaches students to work for others, not ones self.

    Sports should earn credits. Our mangled sports programs are the closest thing we have left to an entreprenuerial form of public education. Poorly trained though they are, you will see some high school entrepreneurs taking their hands-on skills to the NBA in a few weeks. Most will know nothing about handling money, may be poor communicators, and be lacking in most subjects that would benefit them. Then there's the other group, they will graduate or flunk out of high school, knowing only basketball and not even where to go to continue to use the one skill they do have. They never got a holistic education to prepare them. They can't even show a high school credit for the knowledge they have.

  6. Wyman. I can't argue with you on any of this. I am wondering how many coaches would be good at teaching math, or physics or the other integral factors involved in basketball or football, or even golf. And most schools hire their coaches with winning in mind, rather than education of their children. I think school athletics are often distorted and have less to do with the development of the child than with the child's growth and development. Challenging changes would be in order.