Saturday, November 21, 2009


Yesterday in New York, an after school shooting rampage by five youth gang members brought down a young honor student in crossfire. It is a story told again and again in American cities. Otto Salomon said, "the value of the carpenter's work is in the object made... the value of the student's work, making the same object is in the student." What we get when we set students to work making things of beauty and value are children of beauty and value. Fail in that, and we get what we get.

Children in many schools are subject to restraint, passing from boring class to class. It is completely against their natural inclinations toward active life. Can you see the relationship between classroom restraint, and after school when all hell breaks loose? Within the process of making things is the growth of moral character and human significance. Some would blame the schools for what we have now, and blame it on moral collapse of teaching and administration. But let me tell you this: Teachers and administrators care about kids.

I would instead look to the society at large. We have classes of wealth, people who grew up understanding nothing of hands-on creativity, who see objects as things to be made by others and sold at profit, not as transformative process through which community and culture are established and preserved. Life at the top secured by embrace of the bottom line. Radical conservatives propose that community and culture are what trickles down from their glorious economic success. But buddy, it just ain't so.

When we empower a craftsman to make, we set in motion the transformation of community and culture. When we take educational institutions and allow them to be islands of "excellence" in the midst of poverty, through which students pass on their way to "success" while remaining untouched by the full scope of their surroundings, we have preserved a culture in which long term failure is pre-ordained.

This is nothing new in this blog. I have talked about this before. It is nothing new in society, either. The following is from an 1883 report by Superintendent Samuel T. Dutton in New Haven, Connecticut.
Those (students) whose surplus energies are spent in outdoor sports, or who have active duties out of school, have less need for manual training. The fact that the dignity of labor may thus be popularized, and that many boys not members of these classes will be inspired "to do something," is a strong argument in favor of the plan. It is the industrial and industrious spirit that we want in our schools, and in the community as well, so that honest labor may be not only respectable but honorable. It must be counted a misfortune that popular intelligence does not yet grasp the principles which underlie an education which begins in the kindergarten and carries the industrial and productive idea through all grades.
And so, if we have become a nation of idiots, in which violence rages virtually from TV's and computer screens in children's bedrooms and in harsh reality in the streets of the cities of our nation, we have only the failure of our hands to blame. We have sought cheap goods. We have sought cheap, easy ways to teach kids. The kids know cheap when they see it and know that they are regarded as of little value, for character and value are what you discover in yourself when you are given the opportunity to create.

If we want our schools to be safe again, and to be places where both the intellect and moral character are nourished, it may seem ironic that one might start with a knife. But the simple sloyd knife is an interesting reminder of much more. Its creative use was the child's introduction to depth of will and strength of character... the process through which one becomes a trustworthy, upstanding and creative member of community. The knife, sloyd and manual training deserve a second look.


  1. We have sought cheap....

    Nothing cheap about Chicago Public Schcools...bad outcomes at high cost.

  2. Anonymous6:15 PM

    I know there are amazing teachers and administrators out there who love kids and want the best for them, but if they see kids "learning" in deplorable and uninspiring conditions day in and day out, and they know the system is broken because they're seeing it from the inside, why don't they join together to change things?? The worst thing they can do is to continue to teach within a system that is so blatantly failing its children. Silence implies consent. Maybe if teachers refused to teach until things changed, I would believe that all teachers and administrators want what's best for the kids.

  3. The challenges of changing a faulty system are immense and the challenge of changing a culture is even greater. In Finland the top 10% of graduates go into teaching. In the US, teachers are drawn from the bottom third.

    My mother is a retired Kindergarten teacher and had many student teachers over the years, some of whom could barely write legibly. Can we expect those teachers to envision a revolution? Or have the strength of will to carry it out?

    It is funny, however, how resistant the system is to change even though very few teachers are willing to defend it. In private conversation, and off the record, most will say it sucks.