Why would this be important today? If we are to live in a nation of people whose minds have been made sharp and whose bodies have been made whole and productive, we have great work to do.
Two theories have been advanced in support of the introduction of manual training as a part of public school education. The one is the utilitarian theory ; namely, that our boys and girls should learn skill of hand in order that they might the better earn a livelihood. This theory lays its emphasis upon the thing done, upon the iron shaped, the wood turned, the drawing executed. How desirable it is that we have those in the world who are capable of doing the fine work of the world. Let us, therefore, say the advocates of this theory, educate our children in this direction, to the end that they need not be mere hewers of wood and drawers of water, but that they may occupy a place above the ordinary plane of labor; that they may become skilled mechanics, architects, draftsmen, and the like.And so the manual arts in schools became and had been at one time a means through which all students were raised in both intellect and character. But there were those in the administrative and political class who believed that manual arts training should only be wasted upon those who were incapable of academic work. And so by the time I reached high school, my parents were given a choice. I would be directed to the trades or to college. Being in the college prep program closed all opportunities to enliven my education by doing real things. As a consequence, I was bored and made little effort toward my own success. It was only later after stumbling through college that I discovered how much joy and how much understanding might come through the engagement of my hands in creative processes. Are schools to be places where we warehouse kids and sequester them from real life? Or may we engage them in doing real things? I urge the latter.
Now, this view of manual training is a worthy enough one. It is important that our boys and girls be able to accomplish things, be able to make things, be able to join together the various materials that constitute a machine, be able to give the artistic and skilled touch to everything which they undertake. Yet this, it seems to me, is not the loftiest and most inspiring thought which the manual training teacher should have in mind. The great thing after all is man himself. The reflex influence of all this upon the individual himself is of more importance than the objective result of his work.
One may stand and admire the architecture and artistic adornment of a great cathedral builded in the centuries of the past. He may say it is a noble work. It stands forth as an embodiment of the devotion and hopes and aspirations and religious fervor of the time in which it was built. Yet when we know that such structures are often built at the expense of the better aspects of our life; when we learn that as the building grew under the hands of the workman, the workman shrank in the presence of his structure; we wonder whether, after all, the sacrifice was not too great for the result. The mere accomplishing of some great thing does not necessarily react in the most helpful way upon the doer. Men live in the presence of the most sublime scenery of earth and yet remain groveling, inferior beings.
The mere existence of an objective world, however beautiful it may be, is not of itself sufficient to awaken the highest nobility in man, nor is the putting forth of energy to the construction of things necessarily productive of the highest individual development. The theory of manual training that places it not as a mere acquisition of skill to shape materials into convenient and useful forms, but as a means for the most complete development and enlargement of manhood and womanhood is to me the most worthy, and the one which furnishes the strongest reason for giving manual training the prominent place which it has in our educational system.
Whether a boy is to be a mechanic or not depends largely upon circumstances. But he will be a larger man in every way; he will be the better man no matter what his vocation in life may be, for having the development, the education, the skill, the judgment, the accuracy and precision which come as a result of a course in manual training.
It is, therefore, because you are a body of educators whose object is not to make things but men and women that we welcome you to this city. You have on exhibition in the rooms and halls of this building some beautiful examples of your work. Curious and elaborate shapes have been given to iron and to brass and to wood, but you must all feel that the principal product of your work is not on exhibition here to-day. It is to be found within the nervous systems and chiefly in the mental and moral natures of the boys and girls whom you have had under your instruction.
If your work has been well done, and we have every reason to believe that it has, then the subjective part of it — the part which has remained within the pupil, which has added to his character, has made him more honest because he finds honesty in the materials with which he works, has made his judgment clearer because he finds as a result of his misjudgment a want of harmony of the parts which he is attempting to fit together, is of infinitely more value than the things which you have on exhibition here to-day. I trust that you will find your visit to our city a very pleasant one socially and that your deliberations will be profitable to all who are in attendance. – Henry C. Muckley, 1900.
The cartoon above is from France, 1910, imagining education in the 21st century. It's what some people want today who find no terror or error in it. By the French artist Villemard, it was part of a series "En l'an 2000" ("In the Year 2000") from around the World's Fair and the new century that was packaged in cigar and cigarette boxes.
Make, fix, and create.