Monday, December 19, 2011

thrashing wildly through the woods...

Those of us who live in Arkansas on regular basis come into contact with those who've never been in the woods before, never floated a stream, never walked in the dark under a starry sky, and it seems remarkable, unbelievable to us that there can be those among us who have never been so touched by real life.

Back in the earliest days of the manual arts movement in the US, John Runkle at MIT, Calvin Woodward at Washington University and others had noticed that since so many of their students were no longer growing up on farms and were thus no longer engaged in hands-on problem solving from such early ages, something must be done to bring their engineering and math students up to snuff. When thumbs are left twiddling, little sense of real life is discovered. That sense of real life is the foundation for all subsequent real learning. Runkle and Woodward started woodworking education at their prestigious universities to bring real-world hands-on learning to their students in engineering and math.

Then (as now) we had the problem of schools which Eugene Davenport, Dean of the College of Agriculture and Director of the Agricultural Experiment Station, University of Illinois from 1888 to 1911 described as follows:
Schools have much to do to compensate for the fact that they take the children out of real life for a period of years into an artificial world that we call the school house. They come out of it "long" in information to be sure, but they have lost a subtle something that comes only from personal experience in real life during the days of development. We are coming at last to realize that there is more than one avenue to a successful life, that the way by the schoolhouse may not be the best for all people, and that whether it is the best will depend upon whether the school gives a true or a distorted picture of life. Is the mirror of life which the schools hold up a true one? Is it badly concave or convex at any point? If so, then that concavity or convexity needs correction.

The farm and the shop and the work of the household have a powerful influence in developing executive ability and the power of initiative quite independent of acquisition of knowledge, and if we make the mistake of substituting mere accumulation of facts for this sort of development, and sacrifice the one for the other, it is more than an open question if on the whole we have not lost more than we have gained.
I am reminded of Felix Adler's essay on the value of manual training delivered in Buffalo, NY 1888, at the National Conference of Charities and Corrections. He described a meeting with an aging poet* who turned to him and said,
"That is all very well. I like your factories and your wealth; but tell me, do they turn out men down your way?"
And Adler asks, "Is this civilization of ours turning out men — manly men and womanly women?" Those are the values of character that come from hands-on learning that our schools neglect and that our children so desperately need. Do you think those experts looking for what are essentially non-measurable qualities of success will know where to look for them or how to create opportunities for them in our nation's schools?

I have a friend Ernie who is a watercolor artist. He also runs a float service on a local river. He is an expert paddler, having survived the worst of river conditions and water rescues. You could think of him as a "man's man". He told me about the tourists he meets. One thought that that the river went in circles, that he could put his family in canoes here and after a wonderful day on the river take out there, pointing immediately upstream. Another customer after hours on the river assumed he had missed his takeout point, abandoned his canoe and then spent hours thrashing wildly through the woods. He emerged from the woods looking like a scratched and half-naked madman.

I am also reminded of my friend Chon who had taken 50+ year old guests on a night walk with flashlights into a meadow. They were terrified to turn out the lights and to experience the dark night star-strewn sky for the first time in their lives.

So what the heck are we doing in American education? John Dewey had asked that schools become engaged in real life... That schools not be artificial constructs that distort children's understanding. And yet, that is what they have become. And so much more so in our present time.

Take matters into your own hands. Help your children to:

Make, fix and create...

*When asked about Adler's quote of the "aging poet," Walt Whitman said, "I guess that's me: and it is very kindly and friendly, isn't it?"

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