Thursday, October 13, 2011

conversation with the professor...

Last night I finally had an extended conversation with Professor Alex Slocum of MIT. I had heard him speak briefly about the hands at the Furniture Society Conference the summer before last and we'd been in contact via email in hopes of a chat.

You can learn a bit about him from this site. The photo shows him explaining a method for storing energy on the seafloor to President Obama.

The photo below shows one of Professor Slocum's woodworking projects. You can see Alex at work at

Professor Slocum is working with others on a variety of ways to get kids thinking with their hands. One is a tool similar to Facebook that would allow students to share what they are really doing not just what they like. Of particular note in our conversation, Slocum said that if he had a trillion dollars and a decade to do it, and an American president to go a long in support, he would put wood shops/ making laboratories in every school in America. He noted that kids need to be breaking things to learn how these things work at their most basic levels.

Professor Slocum and I tend to see many things eye to eye. He sees the use of the hands as a biological imperative. From birth we are predisposed to engage the world primarily through our hands. We may witness the world through eyes or ears, but engage is the word that matters, for we are not here just to witness but to engage and survive. Perhaps a psychologist would see the hands as a necessary psychic compulsion.  From a more general perspective, more metaphorical, and more poetic I see the hands as "touching" every facet of human existence, from the way we think, to the ways we talk, to the ways we understand the universe and each other. And as each of us becomes more watchful and cognizant of the role our hand play in our lives, we may each become more astounded at how they shape our lives.

But what the heck are we touching, and what are we using the hands to explore? Shall we launch their explorations toward the fundamental biological, physical and cultural landscape, or narrow their exploration to the serial iterations of consumer devices that are designed to monopolize their attentions with illusions of creativity? It is a question we need to ask. For thousands of generations, human scientific understanding was based on observations that took place in our physical manipulations of material through the making of beautiful and useful objects. Thus it can be stated without reservation, that the hands provided the foundation of human life and understanding. Professor Slocum suggested that children need to break things. They should be taught to have no reverence for the box the electrons came in. He notes that the same rules apply to both wood and to code. Children need to be allowed and encouraged to take things apart without hesitation, to learn how things are made and what makes them work.

Make, fix, and create.

No comments:

Post a Comment