Friday, December 16, 2011

gaining an alphabet of tools

The following is from Calvin M. Woodward's book, the Manual Training School, and outlines his vision for American education.
This distinguishing feature of a polytechnic school, next to the kind of knowledge it aims to give, lies in its method of combining theory with practice. Not only should a polytechnic school aim to give instruction in the scientific principles theoretically involved in every important branch of industry, but it should not be satisfied until the student himself is sufficiently familiar with the details of the processes in question, and sufficiently skilled in the necessary manipulations, to enable him to illustrate these principles himself. These two things characterize the ideal technical school, and mark the educational progress of this generation: First, the things studied and taught are of immediate importance and of intrinsic value; second, one is not supposed to understand a process or an experiment till he has performed it. You know how it is in music. I may be quite familiar with the mathematical and physical theories of music. I may have studied with Helmholz the wonderful mechanism of the ossicles of the ear. I may be deeply read in the aesthetics of harmony and thorough-bass. I may even be able to explain the exact difference between a euharmonic and a common organ. And yet, if I can not play, I am no musician. Moreover, this playing on an organ is not a manual accomplishment merely. The brain is more concerned than the fingers. It is so in every thing. What avails your knowledge of photography unless you can take a good picture, and of what worth is your engineering if your bridge will not carry its own weight, and you have designed an impossible engine? None but the wearer can know where the shoe pinches, and none but a man who has had some practice is prepared for practical difficulties. Prof. Tyndall says, "Half of our book-writers describe experiments that they never made, and their descriptions often lack both force and truth. No matter how clever and conscientious they may be, their written words can not supply the place of actual observation," and he might have added, "of actual manipulation." Theory and practice, then, must go hand in hand; and, in order that the practice may be adequate to the theory, the hand and eye and head must receive previous careful training,—the hand in the use of instruments and tools; the eye in measuring distances and angles, in detecting peculiarities of form, and in observing the details of a construction; the head in a knowledge of the common properties of the commonest material substances, such as wood, stone, iron, glass, etc. The hand is a wonderful organ, and capable of performing vastly more than it is usually made to do. The same is true of the eye. Close observation is a habit which few acquire.


Children should early be taught to use, as well as to beware of, sharp tools. Just as every boy should be taught to swim, to row, to ride and groom a horse, so he should be taught to use the ax, the saw, the plane, and the file. Even a little skill in the use of these tools is invaluable. No one possessing manual dexterity of any kind fails to find abundant opportunity for its use.

I do not think I overestimate the value of physical strength, dexterity, and skill. It is in vain to assert the dignity of labor. Unless it has something in it besides dignity, we are not likely to be very zealous in seeking it. But skill we delight in. It is the exercise of skill which gives zest to all our games and sports, and removes the curse of Adam. There is not a person before me possessed of unusual skill, — I care not whether it be in handling the carpenter's ax or the painter's brush, in playing the organ or in shooting game, in driving horses or in sailing a boat, in making bread or in fitting a garment,—who is not conscious of a feeling of gratification and pride in consequence. Carlyle says in his Sartor Resartus‎, "Two men I honor, and no third: First, the toil-worn craftsman," etc. It is obvious that it is the craft that lie honors, and not the toil.

I therefore plead for a more extended and more systematic physical [manual] education. It is the best aid towards securing a wholesome intellectual culture, and it is the only means for making that culture of practical use. The world judges and rates us according to what we can do; and as an accomplished gymnast never loses his presence of mind, whether hanging by one foot or turning in mid-air, so a well-trained engineer is rarely at a loss. An acquaintance of mine, a young man well trained in both the theory and use of tools, and accustomed to do things, chanced to pass, in the city of New York, a gang of workmen endeavoring to move an immense iron safe. The unwieldy mass had partially slipped from their grasp, and all efforts to bring it again under control seemed to fail. Taking in the situation at a glance, my friend stepped forward and assumed the command. Clearly and without hesitation he gave his orders; promptly and willingly the men obeyed. In a moment the safe was well in hand, and expeditiously moved to its place. As the young engineer turned to go, a gentleman stopped him and said, "Young man, I will give you three thousand dollars a year if you will enter my employ and take the charge of moving our safes." Besides saying that the skill thus displayed was gained by study of the strength of materials and the mechanical powers, coupled with the actual use of tools in his own hands, I ought to add, perhaps, that the blunt offer was politely declined.


But the acquisition of this desirable manual skill requires workshops and tools and teachers; and, as such essentials are not in general to be had at home or at a common school, the work must be done at a polytechnic school. Hence, at the earliest possible moment, in the lowest class, students must enter the workshop. From the bench of the carpenter they should go to the lathe. Wood-turning is an art requiring great judgment and skill, and any one accomplished in it will testify to its great practical value. After wood, come brass, iron, and steel turning, fitting, and finishing; then the forge, where each should learn welding and tempering. This is the alphabet of tools. Next will come their legitimate use in the manufacture of patterns for castings, in the construction of model frames, trusses, bridges, and roofs; in the cutting of screws and nuts with threads of various pitch; and in the manufacture of spur and bevel wheels, with epicycloid and involute teeth. This shop-work should extend through the entire course of four years, varying somewhat according to the professional course selected.
Professor Woodward was the professor of mathematics and engineering who is considered the father of manual arts in America. We have an alphabet of letters that we push in schools whether the children are ready or not. We have an extreme sense of urgency about that. But if we have no alphabet of tools, what will children do with the many words they can can spell? And will they have any deeper sense of understanding?

Hinge made of hardwood dowels and brass rod.
This afternoon, I have been working in the shop, putting finishing touches on small cabinets in preparation for a show that begins in January in Little Rock. I've also begun playing with another type of wooden hinge shown in the photo above.

Make, fix and create...

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