Monday, October 11, 2021

manual arts and the upper crust.

I seldom address the economic value of manual and industrial arts in the blog because that's a given. You'd have to be dead-on plumb bob stupid to not know that when you put tools and the power of understanding in the hands of a man or woman, that he or she can become a contributing member of an economy.  Settlement schools like North Bennet St. in Boston and Hull House in Chicago were intended at first to accommodate the huge number of unskilled immigrants who required acculturation and skill in order to make their way in the American political, economic and social landscape.

 I've been concerned more about the benefits of manual arts training to all, as its general value as a tool in the development of character and intellect is the value most ignored. There's been a persistent conceptual divide in American education, with an upper crust or intellectual elite intended to receive academic training, while the rest were to get trained and acculturated for manual labor. And that great divide left the upper crust stupid and unskilled. Along with that divide came disparagement of skill, and the unreasonable elevation of academics as superior to all. But what is the value of knowledge if we can actually do nothing but twiddle thumbs. Fortunately, the American people have means to rise up despite our educational institutions. The persistent inclination to do and to make whether music or objects of useful beauty is endemic. Academics are not.

I got an inquiry from a person in India who is trying to establish programs for their poor, and wanted me to point out my own essays in the blog that best address the value of manual arts training for the poor. Some of the best writing on this subject was by Felix Adler, founder of the Workingman's School in New York City. Here in the blog you can find excerpts of Adler's writings on the subject having to do with both social classes, the rich and poor if you use the search block at upper left. Type in Adler and see what comes up. One of my essays concerning Adler is on the subject of Will. Adler believed that morality was less a matter of religious precept than one of action. He was an advocate of "unsectarian" education. The more modern term would be "non-sectarian". Many still believe that religion and religious dictate are our only sources of human morality.

Non-sectarian education has been important in the US, helping folks from nearly all cultures to find common ground. On the other hand, non-sectarian education is often viewed as lacking in moral content. Kids are often left on their own for moral guidance, as teachers feel constrained to keep out of the moral arena. And so we have schools in which bullying is commonplace and pop-culture is the primary guide to student behavior. According to Dr. Thomas Gordon in Teacher Effectiveness Training, many teachers are reluctant to enter the values or morals arena with their students. They may even be frightened to address moral concerns that may be related to sectarian values. "They prefer to leave these teachings to families, churches and other agencies".

Adler and others in the early days of manual arts education, recognized the value of craftsmanship as a moral force in education. You either do a job well, or not. If you perform carelessly, the results are obvious for all to see. Through craftsmanship a student is pushed toward caring and the expression of care. In academic subjects the results of work are abstract, often disconnected from direct relationship to the child's environment. Assessment of academic labor is vague, often discriminatory, and lacks clarity. What students may learn in academic pursuits is that they can lie and often get away with it. In any case, I urge those interested to read more of Adler, a bit of which follows: 
"All that has been said thus far converges upon the point that has been in view from the beginning—the importance of manual training as an element in disciplining the will. Manual training fulfills the conditions I have just alluded to. It is interesting to the young, as history, geography, and arithmetic often are not. Precisely those pupils who take the least interest or show the least aptitude for literary study are often the most proficient in the workshop and the modeling-room. Nature has not left these neglected children without beautiful compensations. If they are deficient in intellectual power, they are all the more capable of being developed on their active side. Thus, manual training fulfills the one essential condition—it is interesting. It also fulfills the second."

"By manual training we cultivate the intellect in close connection with action. Manual training consists of a series of actions which are controlled by the mind, and which react on it. Let the task assigned be, for instance, the making of a wooden box. The first point to be gained is to attract the attention of the pupil to the task. A wooden box is interesting to a child, hence this first point will be gained. Lethargy is overcome, attention is aroused. Next, it is important to keep the attention fixed on the task: thus only can tenacity of purpose be cultivated. Manual training enables us to keep the attention of the child fixed upon the object of study, because the latter is concrete. Furthermore, the variety of occupations which enter into the- making of the box constantly refreshes this interest after it has once been started. The wood must be sawed to line. The boards must be carefully planed and smoothed. The joints must be accurately worked out and fitted. The lid must be attached with hinges. The box must be painted or varnished. Here is a sequence of means leading to an end, a series of operations all pointing to a final object to be gained, to be created. Again, each of these means becomes in turn and for the time being a secondary end; and the pupil thus learns, in an elementary way, the lesson of subordinating minor ends to a major end. And, when finally the task is done, when the box stands before the boy's eyes a complete whole, a serviceable thing, sightly to the eyes, well adapted to its uses, with what a glow of triumph does he contemplate his work! The pleasure of achievement now comes in to crown his labor; and this sense of achievement, in connection with the work done, leaves in his mind a pleasant after-taste, which will stimulate him to similar work in the future. The child that has once acquired, in connection with the making of a box, the habits just described, has begun to master the secret of a strong will, and will be able to apply the same habits in other directions and on other occasions."
The notion of cultivating a strong will  in students might not appeal to educators whose objective is to make students complaisant, and who think that some purpose might be achieved by making school boring and as much a test of the nerves as a test for the intellect. 

You may notice the gentlemanly clothes of the Sloyd teacher in the drawing above. Otto Salomon was very careful to use drawings and photos showing that Educational Sloyd was for all students, not just those from the working class.

Make, fix and create...


  1. I’m still sorting through some of my feelings around this as it relates to the upper crust… because at this point, North Bennet is EXPENSIVE. So in a sense, it is upper crust.

    Aside from all of that, I really like the term “unsectarian” because non-sectarian in my semantic head means ‘not specifically religious’ where ‘un-‘ anything means ‘specifically not that.’

    And I guess there was something about the religious implications that got my hackles up, because it seems these days like the religious leadership, or at least the public facing, politically inclined ones *are* the bullies. And precisely because they go out of their way not to be ‘non-scientific,’ so much as ‘unscientific.’ They go with what they feel, and much like the academics you mention, have learned that they can lie and get away with it.

    There are days that I feel like Douglas Adams, who called himself a ‘Radical Atheist.’ He said he used that term deliberately, because when he said he was an atheist, most folks’ knee-jerk reaction was to question him on that belief. It was as if they weren’t sure that, on the topic of his own belief, he would be an authority. But ‘Radical Atheist,’ clearly meant that he was serious. So, that’s what he went with, just to keep things simple.

    But sometimes I feel like an agnostic, and I can’t for the life of me understand why any self-proclaimed good Christian wouldn’t want to be a scientist: God (if you go in for that sort of thing) made the earth WAY before the Bible was written. You’d think it would make much more interesting source material, in a hands-on, learning real things kind of way. And for the academically-minded potential frauds out there, food science must be peer-reviewed, and experiments and experience verified.

    All of that being said, it’s late, and I’m tired and cranky. So please forgive me for my trespasses.

    I still read your blog devotedly, and I’m glad you’re out there doing what you’re doing.

  2. JW, thanks for reading through my overly long post. North Bennet St. may seem uppercrust at this point, but it was decidedly not that when it was founded. It was intended to serve the poor.

    Religion is a confusing subject as it is based on what we believe or hope to believe or profess belief in. And in that realm we're welcomed to believe what we want, as that is proposed as our right. It would be far better if we were able to suspend belief and simply observe, learn to trust science as a process, develop critical thinking skills rather than being required by schooling and religion to suspend disbelief.

    In schools which we've all endured, we've been planted in seats and measured by our compliance. It's the same in church. And not having been encouraged to challenge directly what we've been taught, we fall into the trap of thinking that the reality we've chosen for ourselves is right and the others wrong, and then line up along factional lines against each other and in denial of science which has become overly complex to unskilled minds. And people are willing to die to score marks on the other side.

  3. It’s that ‘right to believe what you want,’ that sticks in my craw sometimes. For example:

    Schools in Texas that currently have books about the Holocaust are now required to also have material that presents ‘an alternate viewpoint.’

    The mind reels.

  4. My dad kept a copy of Life Magazine in the bottom drawer of the sideboard in our dining room. It showed naked bodies stacked like cordwood in Camp Dora when his troops from the 104th Infantry Division arrived at Nordhausen during WWII. Doing my own research, I found holocaust deniers claiming that the naked bodies were the result of Allied bombing. Such idiots. Troops from the 104th had to force locals from Nordhausen to sift through the bodies to find those who were still alive. They were starved to the point that they were barely more than skeletons. We are in very dangerous times. Troops from the 104th were alerted to the presence of Camp Dora by the overwhelming smell of rotting flesh. One Private followed his nose. And to think that there are those who would deny reality such as that infuriates me.