Sunday, December 26, 2010

denigrate, then displace, then abandon

I read recently that the drive to displace hand skills in industry was propelled largely by those who didn't have any. Those who had hand skills were less willing to embrace mechanization designed to eliminate the need for those skills. I'm having trouble this morning remembering where I read it, and would offer a quote if I could find it. And yet, not finding the source, does little to dispel what we, you and I, can see so easily and clearly for ourselves.

Early in the process of developing a modern educational model, pedagogists like Rousseau and Comenius saw the integral relationship between the mind and hand as an asset to be utilized as the primary strategy for effective learning. But then the classics got in the way. Wasn't it far better, some argued, to disregard the inefficiencies of hand and impart knowledge in the least round-a-bout manner? Put a person of professorial demeanor at the head of the class, pry open the minds through personal magnetism and compelling discourse and pour in the stuff. Then test and see what comes out. In theory, if the students didn't get it, it was because they were intellectually deficient. Now these days a bit has changed. If the children don't get it, it must be the teacher who is deficient. But let's put aside judgment and get a real grip.

There were early educators at the beginning of the 20th century who argued foolishly that because the eyes and ears are closer in proximity to the brain than the hands, the eyes and ears were more effective for learning, but then another serious question arises, "which are closer to the heart?" Place your hands at the center of your chest, and perhaps you will feel something of the truth. In other words, follow John Ruskin's advice to "Take a straight shaving off a plank," for by doing so, one might learn a thousand things of which the lips of man might never speak.

And so, as a consequence we have millions who have not learned the creative capacity of their own hands, and are led by stratagems of American education to believe that skills of their hands are not required. The hands, they think, can be safely denigrated, displaced by machinery and marginalized in American culture.

I can safely suggest that the reasons for American educational failings are directly related to the five fingered manipulatory objects hanging disregarded, neglected and ignored at the ends of dangling useless arms.

This morning I've been chopping onions, lots of them, to make spinach balls to take to a pot luck. Between washing dishes and chopping onions, I have this sneaking suspicion that I could be replaced by a dishwasher and food processor. And yet there are riches to be drawn from the engagement of our hands in physical reality. Engage the hands and learning follows. Engage the heart, and learning never ends.

The following is from Charles H. Hamm, Mind and Hand, 1886:
"It is easy to juggle with words, to argue in a circle, to make the worse appear the better reason, and to reach false conclusions which wear a plausible aspect. But it is not so with things. If the cylinder is not tight, the steam engine is a lifeless mass of iron of no value whatever. A flaw in the wheel of the locomotive wrecks the train. Through a defective flue in the chimney the house is set on fire. A lie in the concrete is always hideous; like murder, it will out. Hence it is that the mind is liable to fall into grave errors until it is fortified by the wise counsel of the practical hand."

"It is obvious that the reason of the demand for the manual element in education is not so much that industrial interests require to be promoted, as that mental operations may be rendered more true, and hence more scientific. What we need more than we need a better class of mechanics is a better class of men--men of a higher grade both morally and intellectually. The study of things so steadies and balances the mind that the attention being once turned in that direction great results soon follow."
And so it is that with neglect of such wisdom that we have become a nation of pinheads. Make, fix, AND create.


  1. Anonymous11:09 AM

    I am fascinated by the distinctions woodworkers make between hand work and machine work. I mean so much emphasis on a preference for hand work over machine work.

    Aren't hand work and machine work really complementary? Hand work techniques require time to learn and practice to perfect. And a novice woodworker can spoil a lot of material in an effort to produce a given result using only hand work techniques. I'll wager that a novice woodworker can learn to square up a table saw and make accurate cuts much more quickly than he can learn to use a hand saw to make the same cuts. Moreover, she can produce numerous pieces using the table saw as quickly as making a few with the hand saw even after she has perfected hand saw technique.

    Assertions to the contrary, most woodworkers produce more consistent and precise work using machines than by hand.

    The most challenging parts of woodworking for me are to understand the material I am working with and the precision I need to achieve, to formulate an order of operations that will produce parts with required precision, and to assemble the completed parts into the project I am making.

  2. I'm not sure that woodworkers have a preference for hand tool work, but rather an admiration for it. Many woodworkers pull out the treasured hand tools and put them to work on occasion. Some have them for show, but but have never taken the time to get proficient.

    Hand tools are one of the best ways to explore and understand the qualities of the material. A plane will bog down when a planer rips through unconscious of the direction of wood grain and the results on surface qualities, and the knowledge of material qualities learned from hand tools adds to the level of fit and finish attainable through the use of power tools.

    Most of the woodworkers I know have some enjoyment and appreciation of both hand tools and the power tools that make our life easier and work more accurate.

  3. Anonymous4:28 PM

    Hi Doug,
    I would like to give you an instance where gross motor movement helps in computer software design. I am a “software architect” which just means I have been doing it for too long - 30 years. Back in the 70s if you wanted a computer you had to make it, i.e. soldering in components etc but that is not the hand work I am talking about.

    At work we have a really useful tool called a printing whiteboard where you can draw on it and then capture the scribblings into a PDF document on a memory stick. When designing software it is really useful to visually sketch out the design and there are myriad tools out there to help with that, but sometimes I, and others, have found that it can be very useful to just stand in front of the whiteboard and sketch the design, in the large, so to speak. The very fact of waving your arms around seems to help the thought processes move on, because in fact I have to imagine dynamic structures running in software in my head and seeing it visually, maybe even writing down step by step sequencing, very much helps sort out the grittier bits of the design. You really would not get the same effect by using a mouse and keyboard to drive a diagramming tool.

    OK, this requires nothing like the sort of dexterity you need for woodwork, but you will find many of the good software folks will be DIY enthusiasts or, very frequently, musicians. For me it is really simple, there is a reality in the “Nimble fingers, nimble minds” and I am sure any neurologist could back it up. I know that the Steiner schools lot teach knitting in the early years! Of course different folks may have different learning modes, as NLP folks would identify, but this effect of motor movements helping along thinking processes is a real one to me.

    So I shall be watching your blog with interest.

    Just for info, a notable reference for me is Michael Crawford’s book “Shop Class as Soulcraft”, originally an article.
    All the best.

  4. thanks for your comments. If you read Crawford's book, it starts with my remarks taken from this blog as the epigraph to chapter one.

    Your comments confirm that even in the computer age, the hands are essential to learning. If we can just get that notion through a few thick heads, we will all be better off.