Thursday, June 17, 2021

experience in the real world

Yesterday I made a short presentation to our Clear Spring High School students on the Harbor Freight Fellows program that promotes internships in the trades. 

For much too long it has been assumed that students upon arriving at high school age would have to make a choice whether they were going to college or not, and that some would be directed into the trades, those being students insufficiently prepared or or unable to meet the rigors of academia. This was based on a model described by a known racist, Woodrow Wilson who as president of Princeton University had said: 

"We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class, of necessity, in every society, to forgo the privileges of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks."— Woodrow Wilson

Wilson, as our American president, had signed into law the Smith-Hughes Act (1917) which funneled federal dollars into manual and industrial arts training, separating it from academics, thereby creating two tracks in American education, one "upper" leading to white collar employment and one lower, leading to servitude in the trades.

On the other hand, and as I attempted to explain to our students at the Clear Spring School, the education of hand and the education of mind are best not kept separate. They refresh and reinforce each other, a thing Wilson evidently did not understand.

In the early 1960's my mother who had been educated as a Kindergarten teacher in the 1940's decided to return to work and was given a job teaching in Omaha, Nebraska, on a conditional teaching certificate that required her to return to college to attain a 4 year degree. It was a challenging time for our family, with my mother teaching school during the day and attending college at night. It required my sisters and I to take greater responsibilities around the house, but it was an exciting time also due to the excitement my mother found in her studies. 

Her main competition for good grades were from the "Boot strappers" who having left the military were given the chance to attend college. She noted a marked difference between those students in class who had experience and maturity over those who were simply being shuffled forward through the process of getting their college degrees. Along with experience derived from their participation in the real world, the boots strappers brought seriousness and a deeper level of engagement to their classes thus raising the bar for others.

To make a simple point that has great value, getting a trade and learning from it is not a stopping point, but a beginning. Using the principles of educational sloyd as our learning model, we start with the interests of the child, move from the known to the unknown, from the easy to more difficult, from the simple to the complex and from the concrete to the abstract, at each step building confidence and competence in the student. What you learn in plumbing has direct relationship to what you learn in physics, and what you learn in the wood shop can have direct relationship to every aspect of life. What you learn in mastering a trade can be utilized and leveraged in the quest for higher knowledge which is often not as high as one might hope as it is too often isolated in abstraction and fabrication of made up talking points.

For much too long the trades have been seen as a dead end, but as educators across the US began to insist that every kid go to college, we abandoned the most basic notion, that every child should be prepared for life. That involves (as Wilson suggested) fitting ourselves to perform difficult manual tasks, but also engaging at the same time in understanding matters of philosophy, poetry, religion, math, the arts and the sciences. The interesting thing that's been proven time and time again is that engagement in the physical world brings deeper understanding of all else.

When my mother returned to college to get her four year degree, our whole family was brought to an understanding, observing her model, of the value of life long learning and the joy that can bring. 

As I urged my students yesterday, I urge you all as well. Learn a trade and apply what you've learned as a starting point, not the end of your development. The illustration above is from Nääs, the home of Educational Sloyd where teachers were taught to educate both the hand and mind for the benefit of both the individual and society. Educational Sloyd training in the US declined  after Wilson's implementation of the Smith-Hughes Act, 1917, putting into law Wilson's ideal of maintaining society's separation into two classes.

Make, fix and create. Assist others in learning lifewise.

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