Friday, February 18, 2011

the hands, science and the arts.

 Man is the wisest of all animals because he has hands. --Anaxagoras 500-428 BC

"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.

"The hands are the cutting edge of the mind."--Jacob Bronowski 1908-1974

There's not much new here. I keep saying the same simple things over and over again. The hands are incredibly complex in what they do, but I am compelled to share my simple observation that they are the neglected center of human physical and cultural reality again and again until schools awaken from their love of sleep and their obsession with standardized testing.

We know we each learn best, most efficiently and most thoroughly to greatest long-term effect when we learn hands-on. I really don't have to make this stuff up since it is something you can take time to observe for yourself. In dramatic contrast to what we know about ourselves, we've created a system of education in which children are required to sit for extended periods with hands stilled.  American schools are the most expensive in the world and are very, very far from the best. So, how do we get a handle on education reform? How do we get a grip on necessary change? Are we really so unobservant and intellectually impaired as to continue to neglect the hands?

When we started the Wisdom of the Hands program at Clear Spring School our objective was to restore an understanding of the value of woodworking in schools as an integrated program leveraging the hands into position central to every aspect of learning.

And so it is with the arts. The arts are the clearest means to bring the hands into learning. With the hands come the heart. An essential bargain. But the challenge is not just to put the arts back in school as isolated fingers of a useless hand but to use the arts to provide a sense of relationship with everything else a child needs to learn in school. The arts bring the hands into essential play in learning. This is not a new concept that I'm just making up on my own. If you want to know more, read Comenius (1592-1670). He was the founding father of modern pedagogy, but seems to be ignored by most in modern education.

 I have been asked to help members of furniture society brainstorm a return of furniture making to American schools. And so I hope to help. What we need in American education is a friendly takeover by the arts, all the arts, not just woodworking and furniture design. We need potters, jewelers, theatrical performers and musicians, and all whose skills and interests have been pushed aside and marginalized in American education. We were the daydreamers in the classroom looking out windows for some small glimpse of real reality. What we can say is that where the hands are engaged, the heart follows, whether into the arts, engineering, medicine or science. And so my simple proposition is to arrange  for and ask for "the strategic implementation of our children's hands in learning."  Make, fix, create, demonstrate. DIY, TIY

Today I'll spend part of the day cleaning and putting my wood shops in order, and part of the day writing the last (but first) chapter of my new book, Making Small Cabinets.


  1. You're right on with people in schools being asleep. I've worked with my hands all my life, but since I have been a teacher it has been a battle to "stay awake" and focused on the use of them in my classroom. There is so much knowledge that we are expected to cram into our students minds- and it bores the daylights out of all of us! As a result, teachers and students spend our waking hours floating in a stagnant river of boredom and behavior problems. many teachers do not have the energy to break this cycle. Keep writing this blog Doug, because you get people fired up about this stuff. I read a fair amount of books and articles about education reform and your blog is by far the most intriguing, intresting, inspiring, energizing and useful source I know.

  2. Chris, thanks for your kind remarks.