Thursday, June 03, 2010

History from Things

I am reading History from Things, Essays on Material Culture Edited by Steven Lubar and W. David Kingery, and I'm grateful to my local Carnegie Public Library for ordering it for me from the University of Arkansas.

It is the kind of book that I could mine for months, gathering important insights for this blog. As I've mentioned before, objects frame human life and culture, and describe history with greater insight, authenticity and sincerity than discursive evidence alone.

Unfortunately, with all our educational emphasis being on reading and verbal narrative, and children being left untrained in the making of objects, we are putting human culture at risk.

Imagine having a computer with "Read Only Memory" (ROM). That computer would be an appropriate analogy for what we are doing to our children when we neglect to engage them in hands-on creative learning through the making of beautiful and useful objects.

I am busy cleaning my home wood shop, and the school wood shop, and preparing for the celebration of the Carnegie Public Library's 100th Birthday Party where with the help of able assistants, I'll have woodworking projects for kids.

The chart above is from History From Things, and illustrates the relationship between documentary and non-documentary artifacts in the telling of our human story. An essay in the book by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, "Why We Need Things," describes our psychological dependence on things and how our dependence on serial possession of a huge array of meaningless objects puts the future of our planet at risk. So, how do we move from a destructive relationship to objects to one of wisdom? A small key may be found in a discussion I described earlier in the blog. My 3rd grade students informed me that Chinese toys break and are thence thrown away, but that those they make themselves last because they take care of them. If human history is told in the objects that frame human existence, should those objects contain meaning? Should those objects record and describe our journeys of personal growth? I think so.


  1. Henrique Chaudon5:13 PM

    Yes! Objects, for those who can read them,are eloquent. Archeology, first, is the art of reading silent remains.

  2. Hi Doug,
    Reading this post, and by free association, made me think of a lovely book by Henry Petroski "To Engineer Is Human". If you haven't read it, I suspect you will enjoy it as much as I have.

    Henry's main thesis is engineering only progresses, not through success, but only through failure. The bridge that stays up is not as interesting as the bridge that falls down. If the bridge stays up, was it good luck or good design? If it falls down, then there is something to learn.

    I think that is very much true when I'm working in the shed - when I get a box hinge right, it's only because I've got quite a few wrong before.

    Anyway, thanks for your post today.

  3. You are right about a reading and verbal emphasis, and I would also add math skills that go beyond what we need. Schools only care about teaching what is needed to pass state requirements, which means we teach to pass the test. This is not so much the fault of the local districts as much as it is the politicians who place restrictions on us that have been invented by some "educational expert" with a doctorate who never taught more than a year or two if that in a public school.