Saturday, May 23, 2009

The case for working with your hands, New York Times

This is a great article in the New York Times: The Case for Working With Your Hands
The imperative of the last 20 years to round up every warm body and send it to college, then to the cubicle, was tied to a vision of the future in which we somehow take leave of material reality and glide about in a pure information economy. This has not come to pass. To begin with, such work often feels more enervating than gliding. More fundamentally, now as ever, somebody has to actually do things: fix our cars, unclog our toilets, build our houses.
The author of the article, Matthew Crawford, is one you may remember as the author of the New Atlantis Article, Shop Class as Soulcraft. Shop Class as Soulcraft, an inquiry into the value of work, is now expanded and published as a book and will be released by Penguin Press this week. Crawford states further:
"I taught briefly in a public high school and would have loved to have set up a Ritalin fogger in my classroom. It is a rare person, male or female, who is naturally inclined to sit still for 17 years in school, and then indefinitely at work."
He had noted in his short time in the classroom what every educator from the time of Comenius had observed, and yet, we have created an educational system that obstructs every natural inclination of our humanity. Those inclinations are to build, plant, tend and care-for through action in the real world expressing the engagement of the hands. Interestingly, I found myself quoted without clear attribution in the article as follows from my blog post of October 16, 2006:
One shop teacher suggested to me that “in schools, we create artificial learning environments for our children that they know to be contrived and undeserving of their full attention and engagement. Without the opportunity to learn through the hands, the world remains abstract and distant, and the passions for learning will not be engaged.”
I have had a conversation with Mr. Crawford and he is making an effort to set things right. He posted a note to his website, along with a link to this blog, and arranged that the New York Times article provide a link to the Wisdom of the Hands.


  1. The New Atlantis published the original article, not the Atlantic.

  2. Thanks, Franz, I made the correction to the text. That was a fine article.

  3. Doug,

    While I agree with you on the value of working with your hands, does that preclude getting an advanced education - as Mr. Crawford seems to suggest - to provide you with the theoretical background to do a practical job?

    I'm an electrical engineer and I design electronic equipment. My job is eminently practical and hands-on, yet I could not do what I do without the advanced math and circuit theory that came along with a master's degree. While my colleagues who followed the shop class/junior college route are very capable and essential to our product's success, they lack the theoretical background to do design work, and it's too big a gap to make up on the job.

    Similarly, there are plenty of engineers like me who work a lot with their hands but never found the residential wiring or circuit board assembly we learned about in shop class very exciting.

  4. The problem with our current model of education is that the hands and brain are considered either or, when there is ample evidence that the engagement of the hands actually makes the brain smarter and learning easier. I think an excellent example is the inventor of the hurriquake nail... a contractor went back to engineering school to develop a practical idea into the reinvention of the nail which should save billions in property damages and save countless lives. We can stand more blending between the two, and less emphasis on the idea that book learning is in some way superior to practical knowledge. I have made the suggestion to the provost at Columbia University that the education of the hands be added to their Core curriculum. Yes I know it won't happen in my lifetime, but there are things about the practicality of our existence that won't come from theoretical extrapolation.

  5. You lost me a bit here.

    What is "education of the hands"? Shop class? Cooking?

    As for engineering, it's hardly "theoretical extrapolation". In a typical undergraduate course, you've got three hours a week of class and three hours a week of lab work.

    Class work starts out as basic theory and eventually evolves into a mix of theory and modeling techniques. Your first however many lab sessions demonstrate the theory; you also get to play around with different things and see how they work.

    About mid-way through the course, lab work gives way to a design project, and you spend one or two months building something from scratch.

    When you get to larger projects (e.g. in the workplace), the modeling component becomes very important. This is notably absent from the education you would get in the shop class/junior college stream.

  6. What I have in mind is not your conventional shop class or cooking class, but full integration of the hands in learning. I can't explain everything here in the comments section, but I would invite you to read deeper in the blog. At Clear Spring School, we start woodworking at pre-school and have participation in other craft activities throughout the years K-12. In a conventional public school you have to make a choice whether you are college prep or not and from that point, you may have some science lab activities, but the rest turns purely academic. Every important educational theorist from Comenius and Francis Bacon to Howard Gardener suggest that by teaching in contrived settings and over looking the other forms of intelligence, we do a tremendous disservice to our children. Engineering as you describe may be a different egg. But arriving there, where you are you must know is pure chance. Children's brains mature to handle abstract knowledge at different times, and if you fit the formula on which our system is constructed, you luck out while others may be left counting their fingers and thinking themselves forever dumb. Anyway, I do invite you to read deeper.

    very best, Doug

    P.S. not everyone is in love with shop class and John Dewey had some rather harsh and valid things to say that you can find here by using the search block at upper left. You might also enjoy reading some of Woodrow Wilson's remarks, also available using the search function. Type in either John Dewey or Woodrow Wilson.

  7. Thanks for the pointers. I looked at the Clear Spring website and it's difficult to figure out what the exact curriculum is. I do appreciate that any school where there's a commitment to student learning and engagement is better than a typical public school, so it often doesn't matter what's in the curriculum.

    You note that "by teaching in contrived settings and over looking the other forms of intelligence, we do a tremendous disservice to our children..." I think we agree on this.

    Looking back a few posts, you write: "I became disturbed by the sharp decline in woodworking in the schools...Industrial arts classrooms were being converted to computer labs."

    It's unfortunate that it needs to be an either/or situation. (I'm not sure if you're suggesting that computer labs on their own are a bad thing.) Computer skills are a very much overlooked "other" form of intelligence - I've worked with numerous people who barely completed high school but had such tremendous aptitude for computers that they could be competent and practical (and professional) programmers as early as age 13 or 14. Without this opportunity, they'd be high school dropouts. The details are unimportant, but my parents bought me a computer with no software when I was 7 years old. My high school had no computer courses to speak of (but a big wood shop), but working on my own gave me very practical job skills and definitely pushed me towards a career in engineering.

    I think my disconnect with "Shop Class as Soulcraft," and Mr. Crawford's other writing is that it separates carpentry, metalwork and mechanical repair from electronics and computer programming, when in reality they are much more similar than they are different. There's a sense in Crawford's writing that only "low-tech" qualifies as "work with the hands". We may as well broaden the definition of "creating something" instead of narrowing it.

  8. I haven't read Mr. Crawford's book as yet, but I doubt that his intent is to disparage electronics or computers. But there is a sense in education that computers are everything about our future. Mazlow said that if the only tool you have is a hammer every problem looks like a nail. I add that if the only tool you have is a laptop, regardless of how many gigs that laptop may have, and how many programs installed, it is not nearly enough to compensate for all the other tools we have pushed aside from our children's lives.

    Parents worry that if we aren't pushing laptops in our babys' laps, they will be left behind in the global economy. They would do their child greater service by giving a laptop and a screwdriver so the child could at least take it apart and figure out what in the world was inside. The box itself and its use is self educating and even old-timers like myself can keep up.

  9. Yes, parents do have a limited understanding of what a computer will do for their children. At any rate, I think I understand your perspective.

    What's your take on electronics?

  10. I think electronics are fascinating. An interesting intersection between abstract thinking and concrete reality. I do wish I understood it better.

  11. Anonymous3:30 PM

    I think that Mr. Crawford did not mean to disparage computers. What he was referring to was the stuff one learns in school by perusing liberal arts degrees and management.