Sunday, September 20, 2015

the undisclosed value of manual arts training.

Developing an ethos of craftsmanship...

Blog reader Tim asked a question in response to the Forbes article on CTE/Vocational Training in School: can a just society, in which all are treated fairly and able to find and generate work satisfying both to themselves and to the needs of society, educate the full range of tradespeople necessary to vital communities?
This is not a new question, and is one that is almost never addressed in discussions of Career and Technical Education. Whether or not someone would find satisfaction in being a garbage collector might concern those who want to make certain that we have a culture in which all citizens are afforded a reasonable level of dignity and reward for their service. This was a big concern to Uno Cygnaeus and Otto Salomon, the two founders of Educational Sloyd. Cygnaeus wrote of his initial conception of sloyd (inspired by Froebel's Kindergarten) as follows:
the child must not only practise intuition, and express the representation which he has thus received, but should also learn to carry out in play, and in smaller pieces of hand-work, what he has grasped — should as a productive being be educated from the beginning to self-activity and productive energy — should thus be educated through work for work. ... In this way I was led to the thought that we must introduce into the school not only Froebel's gifts and the rest of the exercises in work recommended by him, but also establish for elder children such kinds of hand-work as have for their aim the training of the hand, the development of the sense of form, and of the aesthetic feeling, and which help young men to a general practical dexterity, which shall be useful in every walk of life. ...But all these kinds of work must not be conducted like trades, but always with reference to the aim of general education and as a means of culture."
The point was not to establish a separate system of manual arts/industrial education and a separate career track for those deemed unworthy of academic instruction, but that all would benefit from an education of the hands... It would be an easy thing in this blog to explain what should be as clear as the nose on my face.We need technical training in schools to provide the kinds of intelligent workers required in a modern society. What is more difficult to explain, and what keeps me writing is that ALL children need the kinds of learning that wood shop provides. All children need to face the challenges of learning craftsmanship. The practice of craftsmanship applies to all else that we might tackle in our long lives, and applies directly to the culture we pass along to our children. Salomon said the following in reference to the true value of Sloyd and woodworking for all students:
“...persons not manually trained, generally regard the products of manual labour at less than their real value. They think it much more difficult to solve a mathematical problem than to make a table. It is not an easy thing to make a parcel-pin or a pen-holder with accuracy, and when students have done these things they will be the better able to estimate comparatively the difficulty of making a table or chair; and what perhaps is of still greater importance, they will become qualified to decide between what is good and what is bad work.”
I restate Salomon to apply additional emphasis on an important point.
“...persons not manually trained, generally regard the products of manual labor and performers of that labor of at less than their real value."
In other words, those who fail to understand the real value of manual labor, what it entails, and what it cost to learn, and to learn well, will not grant dignity or fair value to those who perform it. It's why we have a 99% and a 1% who could care less for the bottom tier of society and who place themselves on pedestals of wealth as being better than the rest of us. It's also why we import so much junk from other countries instead of developing an ethos of craftsmanship in our own citizenry.

This was a point that brought some contention between Otto Salmon and his mentor, Uno Cygnaeus when Salomon made statements in favor of separate manual training schools. Cygnaeus insisted that Salomon had misunderstood the important societal principles involved. Students were not to be divided and sent along on separate career and educational tracks without having first acquired a thorough understanding of the dignity of all labor.
Make, fix, create, and insist that all be given an equal opportunity to learn likewise.


  1. Doug,
    A good example of what you're saying is the 1894-95 Catalog of the Throop Institute, now Caltech in Pasadena. In introducing the school's various programs described the Manual Training Dept this way:

    "It has been determined to make this department one of the leading features of the institution, One of its chief purposes, in the language of Prof. George S. Mills, is 'to foster a higher appreciation of the value and dignity of intelligent manual labor. A boy who sees nothing in manual labor but dull brute force, despises both the labor and the laborer. With the acquisition of skill in himself comes the willingness to recognize skill in his fellows. When once he appreciates skill in handicraft, he honors the workman. The social influence must not be underrated. Many perplexing questions of the day arising from lack of sympathy between the classes, and the consequent lack of discrimination between skilled and unskilled labor, will grow clearer as the influence of such an education is felt.'"
    The catalog is online:

  2. Tim, that is a fabulous statement of the purpose of manual arts training. Thanks for sharing the link. do you think Caltech has any remembrance of its history and original intent?

  3. What I'm remembering here is that Teachers College at Columbia University was first established to train teachers in the practical arts. There's very little there now to remind anyone of that.

  4. I was pleasantly surprised when recently on a tour of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and our student-guide, a Mechanical Engineering major, mentioned taking metal casting, and that Architecture majors are required to build structures that they sleep overnight in. So it's not hopeless!

  5. Thoreau had mentioned the trackside case the RR workers kept their tools in as being almost sufficient as a home. It might be interesting to see what the architecture students came up with. One professor at Dartmouth had suggested that students be required to make the chair they would sit in through their 4-5 years of education... and that they would learn more from making the chair than from the rest of their classes.

  6. It would be entirely reasonable to require that those entering an architecture program have at least 5 years experience in the building trades. After all, "architect" means "master builder." They might also be put to work building the dormitories they'd live in while in college. Their labor would pay their tuition, and with a real stake in the workmanship, they'd learn a thing or two about that!

  7. I agree with you, but academicians won't. The idea of learning art history is for non-artists to claim mastery of the arts without having done any of it. The idea of architecture for some would be to claim mastery over the trades without having done any of it.

  8. I am reminded of a friend who graduated many years ago from the University of Oklahoma with a degree in engineering. He worked his way through school in the university cabinet shop where he made desks and bunkbeds for school dormitories. You can probably guess which he learned the most from.