Thursday, May 19, 2011

home again...

I am back in Arkansas after watching my daughter Lucy graduate from Columbia University. It was a big deal. There were over 19,000 graduates in all including Columbia College, the engineering school,  Teachers College, Barnard, and degrees offered at the masters and doctoral levels in social work, nursing, journalism and nearly every other field of academic endeavor including medicine and law. While there, I received the cover image of my new book, number 7, Building Small Cabinets. The final manuscript for review and last minute corrections was waiting for me when I arrived home. The final cover design is shown above.

While these things are exciting to me, being with the graduates of this major university reminded me of the great work at hand.

One of the things that stands in the way of educational reform is that understanding of theory is used as a gate, rather than a gateway to action, which is contrary to the ways that most human being learn best. So we ask students to take theoretical classes long before they have practical experience in the subject matter. We ask students to study teaching as a theoretical model long before they have classroom experience. Long hours of boring lecture forms the gate, rather than the gateway to experiential learning. And so, many students arrive at their last day of school, knowing little more of what they are to become than they knew when they first arrived.

Some of my daughter's friends are planning to go wwoofing as the followup to their academic careers. This is brought on in part by the faulty economy and lack of jobs, but also by their frustration with the unreality of their college careers. They have a longing to do things and become engaged in things that are real to them. And what can be more real and at greater distance from the their stifled academic existence than the world of organic gardening, getting hands in dirt, and watching real things grow.

Can you see how and why it would be important to have greater emphasis on hands-on learning in the modern university experience? Can you see how universities might become more gateway than gate, by getting students more deeply engaged in their studies? We all know that we learn at greater depth and to greater lasting effect when we learn hands-on. A simple recognition of the importance of the hands in learning can make all the difference in how we shape our children's educations, and our own lives as well.  Or have I lost my marbles in New York?

Years ago, when Lucy began her first year at Columbia, I had conversations with Alan Brinkley, then Provost of Columbia about adding hands-on components to their core curriculum. I know how naive I actually am in such matters. But that will not prevent me from making the same attempt with their new Provost, Claude M. Steele. Education is nearly all about the hands. It is not enough to fill brains with ideas that are untested through hands-on exploration of physical, intellectual and emotional realities. And there are important reasons to get hands dirty, and deeply engaged in learning. As I've stated so many times before, the engagement of the hands develops character and intellect.... and does a whole lot more besides.

On the same subject, can play get your kids into college? Read this from CNN. My hypothesis is that not only will play get you into college, it will help you to know what to do when you get out.

Make, fix and create.


  1. So the degree is an abstraction. Too bad they aren't worth nearly what these kids payed for them due to our economy. But, like wwoofing, paying off loans can be a very concrete process, just not as fulfilling.

    And by the way- hopefully the folks at Columbia pick up any marbles that you've lost and have them surgically implanted.

  2. Chris, I hope that no one takes my comments as being critical of Columbia University. I was (and remain) in awe of the accomplishments of all the graduates and all that they (and the university) invest in our shared future. I just think that every major university could be closer to optimum by looking at things through the lens that the hands provide.

  3. Anonymous5:40 AM


    Good for Lucy! Between the theory that she learned at Columbia and the common sense learning she got from you and Jean, she will do fine. And no doubt some of her friends at Columbia learned from Lucy about the hands.


  4. Doug-

    I apologize for any comments I made that were too antagonistic towards the folks at Columbia. I get emotional at times when I read what you write. Mostly because I can relate to it so well. I don't think you're being overly critical, and I fully understand what you are saying. As a teacher I respect and value all of the education and opportunities that go along with a college degree. However, I am not convinced that colleges demand the best out of their students- and that's the bottom line from my stand point as an educator. In my own college experience, there were too many papers, lectures and multiple choice tests- and my degree is in science education! If it weren't for athletics, I would have simply cruised through college, missing out on the true challenge and amelioration that should go along with it. Thankfully sports challenged my body, mind and spirit- just like an academic program could.

    Hands on work must lead the way.