Sunday, August 14, 2011

a ministry of hands

Luke Townsley maintains a blog, unplugged shop, which many woodworkers use to keep track of all their favorite woodworking blogs (and become introduced to new ones as well). He participates each year in a Baptist mission in the Dominican Republic, and he asked the following:
Is there a benefit for manual training or hobbies for professions such as the ministry? I would suppose that doctors, lawyers, salesmen, and others would have a similar situation? Is this something that is too late to incorporate in college or even in post graduate courses or workshops?
There is a long standing tradition of hands-on service within most religious faiths and in the early Christian church Paul was a professional tent maker rather than a professional minister. I told about this in an earlier blog post, Isolation of the head from the hand in learning. Paul, unlike most Christian ministers of today, earned his keep through his trade, rather than by extracting a salary from the collection plate. Martin Luther believed that every man regardless of his occupation (including the ministry) should be equipped and trained in a trade. Within the Jewish tradition, it was believed that every man should be trained in a skilled trade. There are things we learn about life, and the challenges of life that require real effort to acquire a skilled relationship to physical reality. And so the engagement of the hands in service was not just about working at the "I have a hobby level," but a matter of even deeper concern. If the relationship between vocation and ministry interests you, you will find a great deal more discussion of the subject at the Domesticated Theology Blog.

I have a friend who retired from academia after spending over 30 years teaching philosophy at the University of Virginia. He served as an odd man out, knowing his views differed from those of others in his department due to his early summers working in construction and agriculture. His real world practical experience informed his views of nearly all other things. A practical man might wonder how one could become an effective philosopher without having first-hand commonplace experience in real life. That some are "purely academic" can explain a few things. Luke asks also about all those other occupations as well, doctors, lawyers, salesmen, etc. Is there any aspect of human life that the hands do not touch, that they do not shape, or that they would not have shaped had they been trained and encouraged to become skillfully engaged?

Is it too late for colleges and universities to come to an understanding of the importance of hands-on experiential learning? Fortunately, most students know that "purely academic learning" is not enough and that while they are ensconced within the walls of institutions there is a REAL world out there. After four or more years of classroom abstraction they crave engagement in it. That real world, hands-on should be brought within the school walls for more effective learning. Is it too late? We certainly hope not.

Make, fix and create...


  1. There are a couple colleges out there-Deep Springs in California and Berea in Kentucky off the top of my head-that effectively combine a rigorous academic load with getting one's hands dirty. At Deep Springs, for example, students spend their mornings in class, then their afternoons rotating cattle, irrigating the alfalfa field, cooking dinner for all the other students, or a number of other tasks. The goal of the school is not to provide training in any of these things as vocations, but to enhance a student's understanding of the world around him in a concrete way.

    I think there should be more of this going on.

  2. nice perspective. i have been trying to learn woodworking as a hobby or second trade in order to teach my sons a skill. I am also reminded on this sunday that Jesus was also a handtool woodworker.

  3. Doug,
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    This is a subject that doesn't generate much open interest, and yet the difference manual training makes is often very perceptible.

    I tend to agree with the idea that "real world, hands-on should be brought within the school walls for more effective learning." I have a lot of learning and thinking to do on this subject though.

    As I have been thinking over what you are talking about in this article, it seems like the one American institution that did something close to what you are suggesting was Tuskegee Institute in its early years with Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver. I really haven't followed their story to know what has happened in later years.

    For the record, I lived with my family in Santo Domingo of the Dominican Republic from 2001 through 2010 coming back to the US every few years for a couple of months or so. We are now living near Joplin, MO.

    Luke Townsley

  4. Luke, if you live near Joplin, then we are near neighbors in fact as well as in thinking. I'm sure you've visited George Washington Carver's birthplace in Diamond. I think that Carver was a particularly interesting example of the value of hands-on learning as integrated with insight that to the outside appeared extrasensory... Like my dog Tappy that I described in an earlier post. I am going to attempt to do an illustration of how perceptions are narrowed when we are overly dependent on a single sense rather than the full range, and it is what happens when we engage only in on-screen learning or when we are in an ivory tower with limited range of experiential resources.

  5. Anonymous8:59 PM

    "Is it too late for colleges and universities to come to an understanding of the importance of hands-on experiential learning?"

    I hope not, although institutional inertia being what it is, I don't foresee a big return to manual arts at the college level. It would take some visionary administrators, as well as significant financing, to move the average 4-year college toward even including a program in traditional manual arts.

    However, there are some bright spots. "Service-learning" is becoming more widespread, which can include anything from giving course credit for volunteer work to requiring participation in service projects within certain courses. Personally, I learned a lot from service-learning elements in the college courses I took.

    Oh, and there is also the College of the Ozarks, which requires every student to have a regular, part-time job on campus, which greatly reduces tuition costs for the students, while giving them all something useful to do. They don't learn skilled trades, but they certainly learn to balance a job and study time.

  6. Most of the early educators talked about a balanced education, or education being "all sided" and so while many did not specifically mention the hands, they saw a need for manual efforts to add dimension to intellectual learning.

    Teachers College in New York was created to foster the manual arts in education. I have former students who have gone to College of the Ozarks and Berea, Kentucky where all students do some level of service to the school. It is a great model. And of course in schools where hands-on learning is not specifically required, clubs and club activities along with volunteerism and service organizations build a bit of hands on experience into the mix.

    But it would be nice to get a few educational institutions to make the relationship between intellect and manual training and skill official in school mission and philosophy.