Thursday, April 08, 2010

"It is the hand..."

"It is the hand that enables the mind to realize in a thousand ways its highest imaginings, its profoundest reasonings, and its most practical inventions." --James MacAlister, Superintendent of Schools of the City of Philadelphia, 1882.

This morning, I am continuing my competition with the Chinese and other developing nations by making small boxes. An order from Appalachian Spring depleted my inventory, and so I am put to work replenishing supply. Cutting hundreds of small parts would be considered mindless work. Using a sled on the table saw, I can easily make repetitive cuts to very precise dimensions, but each piece has to be examined for imperfections that would lead to a less than perfect box. But still, trained hand and eye simplify the task to the point that my mind can wander into other things of a more philosophical concern.

The capacity to do such work is dependent on what Sir Charles Bell, in 1864 called "muscle sense," as follows:
"By such arguments I have been in the habit of showing that we possess a muscular sense, and that without it we could have no guidance of the frame. We could not command our muscles in standing, far less in walking, leaping, or running, had we not a perception of the condition of the muscles previous to the exercises of the will. And as for the hand, it is not more the freedom of its action which constitutes its perfection, than the knowledge which we have of these motions, and our consequent ability to direct it with the utmost precision."--The Hand: Its Mechanisms and Vital Endowments as Evincing Design
And so as my hands are trained smart, and the eyes, too, I reflect on the wisdom of the hands... My hands and yours as well. Some get the message easily, as it reflects what they know from their own experience. Some have been taught that labor, even skilled, is a form of denigration, to be escaped through refuge in academic pursuits.

It is easy to explain all this to some. It is much more difficult to explain to some who have not had the joy of creating something with their own hands. If you are one who gets it, join in the expression of these meaningful values to others. Make, Cook, Sew, Fix, Create, Plant, Nurse, Tend, and Care through the creative capacity of your hands. Then talk about it. There are some who will not be inspired to create until you have shared your own joy in the making of real, beautiful and useful things.


  1. I am "one who gets it". I just found out that twice as many students have signed up for my wood shop classes for next year. I am not sure why....I only hope that some of them "get it" too. Some days I really wonder if our society will ever wake up and realize that college is not for everyone and that a good trade school is what many young people need.

    Keep making your boxes and force those Chinese to be busy while they find ways to compete!......but all kidding aside, I must admit that I have seen some very fine Chinese woodwork that convinces me that they have craftsmen who also "get it".

  2. I know that we need to realize, as you say, that college is not for everyone, but the message of the wisdom of the hands is that the hands and working with the hands are for everyone. Regardless of what you hope to do in your life, whether you plan to be an electrician or a Ph.D in philosophy or literature, your hands make you smarter than you would have been if you had left them idle. We are all diminished in intellect and character when the education of the hands is neglected.

  3. I am sorry that my last post was logged under my son's name, "Seth".

    And I could not agree more. The whole idea behind high school "Industrial Arts" was not to teach a trade like they do in vo tech high schools, but to pass on a love and knowledge of the "wisdom of the hands" that would last a lifetime. Sad that it has become twisted into theory and technology to the point that it is almost gone in most schools. The pendulum is still swinging away and I hope it swings back sometime in our lifetime.