Wednesday, June 16, 2010

three views of the same thing

I am now in Cambridge, Massachusetts at MIT, for the Furniture Society Conference. This evening, I met with Paul Ruhlmann, Woodworking teacher at Buckingham, Browne and Nichols School and Miguel Gómez-Ibáñez, Executive Director of the North Bennet St. School to prepare for our presentation on Educational Sloyd. The objective is to keep our presentations brief so that we have time to invite discussion. It is interesting that there are two distinct views of the value of manual arts. Some think that manual arts are for those not going to college, and I'll not argue with the value economic value they offer to those who might want to consider work in a trade.

Paul Ruhlmann's program at BBNS, one of the most prestigious private academies in the US, offers woodworking as an arts elective. Few parents of his students would fail to see the value woodworking skills impart to their children's lives. But few, if any of Paul's students would consider entering the trades. Few parents of BBNS students would push their children toward success in the trades.

There is a third view, that woodworking education offers value to ALL children's lives. For some that might include the economic value of working in the trades, but for all children woodworking education includes direct problem solving skills, hands-on exploration of tools and materials that leads to what I have come to call, "educational enthusiasm".

I can share pictures of what educational enthusiasm looks like. I often share photos of my own students at work, but the photo above is from North Bennet St. School.

Jules David Prown, in his essay, The Truth of Material Culture, describes artifacts as a means through which to engage in study of other cultures, a process that is most often distorted by our predispositions. It is difficult to engage objects, without the interference of our own biases. He states,
The problem is a problem of mind. We are trying to understand another culture whose pattern of belief, whose mind, is different from our own. Our own beliefs, our mindset, biases our view. It would be ideal, and this is not as silly as it sounds, if we could approach that other culture mindlessly, at least while we gather our data. This is the great promise of material culture; By undertaking cultural interpretation through artifacts, we engage the other culture in the first instance not with our mind, the seat of our cultural biases,but with our senses. Figuratively speaking, we put ourselves inside the bodies of the individuals who made or used these objects; we see with their eyes and touch with their hands.
I had my own experience of that today. A friend shared my flight to Boston, with each of us heading for different conferences at MIT, but on different ends of the hands-on perspective. Mila, sitting in the row behind mine wanted me to see her new iPad, and all its wonderful tricks. It is amazing. It is intriguing and engaging and powerful. I, on the other hand, would advocate simpler technology, particularly for the young. Will young hands encountering real tools understand their use and their potential when wielded by skilled hands? Will they have aspirations that those hands be their own? Will hands that have never explored their full potential have a grasp of of the value of the artifacts of human history? We may be in the process of finding out. In the same book containing Prown's essay History from Things, Essays on Material Culture, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's essay, "Why We Need Things" explores our psychic dependency on objects.
We like to think that because objects are human made they must be under our control. However, this is not necessarily the case. An object with a specific form and function inevitably suggests the next incarnation of that object, which then almost certainly will come about. For instance, the first crude stone missile begat the spear, which begat the arrow and then the bolt, the bullet, and so on to Star Wars. Human volition seems to have less to do with this development than do the potentialities inherent in the objects themselves... Thus artifacts are sometimes symbiotic with humans, but at other times the relationship is parasitic, and survival of the object is at the expense of its human host.
In the iPad, you can see the sequence of development that Csikszentmihalyi describes. iPod, iPhone, new generations of each leading to the Pad. Are these things being created at the expense of their human host? If all the creativity is inherent in the machine, what will be left of the human impulse to create? Just asking. The bells and whistles of new technology are enticing. Will there be a place in our future for simple skills of hand, shaping wood to become objects of useful beauty? Is that a good question to ask while visiting at MIT?


  1. I wish you the best! You are the only one I know of that is still talking about Sloyd education. I wrote reports on it many years ago in college, and I completely agree with everything that I have heard you say on your blog about the need for it in public education.

  2. I found your blog via UU Updates. What a treat--the beautiful photos, your descriptions of the work you do, and an educational philosophy that makes me wish I lived in Arkansas so that both my daughter and I could learn from you. (I have never in my life thought "Wish I lived in Arkansas!" for even one second before, LOL.) I had never heard of Sloyd before but it carries many of my convictions about education, unschooling, and art in new directions. Thanks!