Sunday, November 01, 2015

engaging the senses...

Today in my wood shop I'll be applying finish to boxes in preparation for shipping to Appalachian Spring Galleries on Monday.

One of the concerns expressed by early advocates of manual arts training was that work not become simply mechanical, meaning that the attention is not applied. Real learning requires attention and demands that the senses be applied through powers of direct observation. N. Christian Jacobsen noted that the saw and the plane, in particular, seem to invite "mechanical" activity as the body surrenders itself to the routine movement of the tool and it can be operated for a short time in a mindless fashion. Beginners, in particular, can get carried away with the motions involved, and neglect the intense observation required to keep the saw on line, or the plane square to the stock. In the Clear Spring School wood shop, students often call out, "Doug, my saw's off the line."And they want me to step in and bring it back. But with sufficient attention applied, the saws we use for straight cuts will cut straight from the outset. You can also tell how much attention the student is giving his or her work by watching how much effort is required. If the mind wanders, the body wanders in the cut, and corrective measures then force the blade to bind so that it no longer cuts with such ease as was experienced at the beginning of the cut. It takes time and experience for the hands, eyes and mind to develop the capacity to observe continuously in a multi-dimensional sensory universe and for the body to respond. We can expect things to get worse as children become more and more engaged in the digital realm.

The plane also can be used in a purely mechanical fashion, at times lacking in the student's use of his or her observational capacity. If you do not pay attention to your own body and your own relationship to gravity, to your grip on the plane in relation to the squareness of the stock,  and the direction of the grain in the wood, the work can go quickly in the wrong direction. And so, when a student first uses a plane, a great deal of careful checking is required. One must stop regularly and often to observe results, and one must have some idea of the intended results in the first place. And then one must have some understanding of the corrective motions required. This is not necessarily easy because a sense of one's own body and development of the power of attention are required.

N. Christian Jacobsen notes that in order to develop a sense of form, the senses themselves must be developed. What an odd thing to think about in schooling, where the numbing of senses is too often the norm. But wood shop, music, science lab and the arts are places where sensory engagement is restored, and are places in which creative expression can be given full reign. Unfortunately, however, wood shop, music, science lab and the arts, are the first programs to be cut when budgets get tight, and when more time is required for standardized tests.

Work becoming purely mechanical was very much on my mind yesterday as I went through the motions of sanding boxes. At this point with so much experience in making these boxes, my hands and senses are trained to the process. If I proceed through the correct sequence of grits, and pay attention to the curves on each edge, my hands  go through the motions, and my mind simply checks in at the right moment for quality control. That leaves some mental capacity for other things, which I suspect may have launched Rousseau's speculations concerning work shops and the development of philosophy. The great thing about wood shop philosophy is that it's nearly impossible to get carried away with it without messing up the work. If your mind wanders too far off track, errors in the work with call your attention back from the brink.

Comenius (1592-1670) had put forth his argument that the senses form the core of learning:
"The ground of this business is, that sensual (sensuous) objects be rightly presented to the senses for fear that they not be received. I say, and say it again aloud, that this is the foundation of all the rest; because we can neither act nor speak wisely, unless we first rightly understand all the things which are to be done and whereof we have to speak. Now there is nothing in the understanding which was not before in the senses. And therefore to exercise the senses well about the right perceiving of the differences of things will be to lay the grounds for wisdom and all wise discourse, and all discreet actions in one's course of life, which, because it is commonly neglected in schools, and the things that are to be learned are offered to scholars without their being understood or being rightly presented to the senses, it cometh to pass that the work of teaching and learning goeth heavily onward and offereth little benefit."
The engagement of the senses lays the foundation for comprehension. And yet educational policy makers have become ignoramuses. What Comenius had observed in the 17th century still applies to children today.

Last night was Halloween in Eureka Springs, and the amount of creativity that was applied to costumes was amazing. My wife and I went to a friends' tourist lodging on White St. to help pass out candy and witness the event. Over 900 children stopped to ask for treats. To see all the young children and their parents in such wonderful costumes tells us that there is no lack of creativity in our community. In fact there is a hunger to express it among children and adults. And in light of that hunger, we have to wonder why education has been forced by policy makers to become such a dismal science.

Make, fix, create, and inspire others to learn likewise.

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