Sunday, August 28, 2011

the 800 lb. sore thumb in the room...

One of the difficult things to talk about in the Wisdom of the Hands is the 800 lb. sore thumb in the room. There are millions of people, college graduates and the recipients of advanced degrees in higher education, who feel justified in thinking themselves the best and brightest. They were recognized by their teachers their first days in school as the smartest and best. From that firm foundation they worked hard for their degrees and invested thousands of dollars to attain a particular standing in American society. For a woodworker in Arkansas, a man holding a hammer to suggest that all those best and brightest may not be as best and bright as they have assumed themselves to be could be interpreted as an insult of the highest order. And yet, when one begins to understand the role of the hands in the creation of intelligence, one cannot help but notice the opportunity cost of decisions that were made in American education, to isolate the education of the hand from that of the mind, to separate those who have academic ambitions requiring college from those presumed ill-suited for academic pursuits destined for the trades. In our system of American education we make no allowances for late blooming. The clock is always ticking on our education, though we know learning should last for a lifetime. Jonathan Baldwin Turner, father of our nation's land grant colleges, wrote of the hazards of a two-tiered society in his Griggsville Address, May 1850:
"...a classical teacher who has no original, spontaneous power of thought, and knows nothing but Latin and Greek, however perfectly, is enough to stultify a whole generation of boys and make them all pedantic fools like himself. The idea of infusing mind, or creating or even materially increasing it, by the daily inculcation of unintelligible words--all this awful wringing to get blood out of a turnip--will, at any rate, never succeed except in the hands of the eminently wise and prudent, who have had long experience in the process; the plain, blunt sense of the unsophisticated will never realize cost in the operation. There are, moreover, probably, few men who do not already talk more, in proportion to what thy really know, than they ought to. This chronic diarrhea of exhortation, which the social atmosphere of the age tends to engender, tends far less to public health than many suppose."

"The most natural and effective mental discipline possible for any man arises from setting him to earnest and constant thought about things he daily does, sees and handles, and all their connected relations and interests. 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. But neither mind nor body can feed on the offals of preceding generations. And this constantly recurring necessity of reproduction leaves an equally honorable, though somewhat different, career of labor and duty open to both, and, it is readily admitted, should and must vary their modes of education and preparation accordingly."
Later, Mr. Charles B. Gilbert, Superintendent of the Newark, New Jersey Public Schools spoke about the danger of sacrificing our democracy on the division between academic work and skilled hand work in the 1905 meeting of the Eastern Manual Training Association:
The great function of all public schools, afterall, is not to give specific knowledge or fit for specific things, but to train democratic citizens. The attitude of the teacher toward manual training has very much to do with the democracy of the teacher. Any sort of separation of children into classes intended to go for all time through their lives is exactly antagonistic to democracy--could not be more directly antagonistic; it is the antipode of democracy... What is the great foe of democracy at all times? It is the building up of walls--permanent walls--between classes; is it not? So long as wealth disappears with a single generation or two generations there is not any great danger; but when we get into the position--condition (If we ever do)--that many of the countries of the world are in; if a child is born with the feeling that he is born in a class--that there is a great gulf or a high wall between him and his neighbor who is born in a different class; then democracy is dead.
So help me with this if you like. We know that many people in education learn that whatever skills and intelligence they bring to the classroom are unwelcomed and unappreciated. They learn to be still, to undervalue their own intelligence, and lose confidence as learners, lose interest in learning. Others, gain a sense of superiority, and remaining unchallenged by the failure to attain real skills in the use of tools and real materials, do not arise to their full excitement of discovery, creativity and imagination, even while feeling themselves entitled as a part of a privileged elite.

Can you see the danger of this? It is the 800 lb. sore thumb in the room of American culture. It leaves some failing in confidence and others failing in creativity. Is it any wonder in the midst of all this that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were both college dropouts? Fortunately the real world does capture a few of our best and brightest despite our system of education.

Superintendent Gilbert had stated in an earlier address to the Third Annual Conference of Teachers, New York City, (from the New york Times, May 30, 1897):
"The words 'manual training' do not express the meaning they were intended to convey. No satisfactory form of words brief and clear enough for general use, have yet been found to replace that now used. The idea of manual training, as understood in the schools, is to train the intellect and the hand together, each assisting in the development of all the best powers of the other."
That we have failed to understand this simple notion in modern schooling will be regarded as the greatest failing in American education.

Today I went to pick up a load of walnut lumber for making small boxes. Three hundred dollars worth of wood will make thousands of dollars worth of boxes, once I've put my hands (and mind) to work. I also acquired some mahogany lumber that will be used to make easels for the art teacher and students at CSS. I'll have my high school students make them once I've milled the stock to the proper size.

Make, fix and create.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous5:41 AM

    Some people get an education in spite of their schooling instead of from it. And that seems like a real shame.