LEARNING WITH OUR HANDS AND FROM OUR STUDENTS
J. Cynthia McDermott
Prof. Dr., Antioch University, The United States, firstname.lastname@example.org
One lesson from the COVID-19 pandemic is our recognition of our dependence on others. Few of us can repair a broken light, change a tire, repair a broken window or repair the wide and myriad number of events that can occur. Instead we rely on workers; individual who use their hands (and their common sense and skills) to help us with daily tasks. This is a society that has forgotten how important these skills are. But it has not always been that way.
Thanks to the philosophy of John Dewey and the actions of William Wirt (who was his student and became the superintendent of the Gary Plan), by 1907 there was a clear understanding that individuals needed to have experience using their hands in what became known as industrial arts courses. In the Gary Plan students were encouraged to think about the vocations available. These manual training classes were taught by practitioners some of whom attended Teachers College which was founded in 1887 as an industrial education schools (Foster, 1995, p.12)
In the Gary Plan and schools modeled on it, students of all ages were given the opportunity to use their hands to produce a thing. When asked about work, the great cabinet maker Krenov (1996) described using his hands this way
Not long ago, I was asked “what does the word work mean to you. I guess it means doing what one thinks is worth doing and doing it well. As long as we have a feeling that comes from our core and lends a bit of warmth to what we do and touches people that our doing brings us in contact with then those of us who are times can be called wood-butchers are doing rather well, really (p. 50)
As a fine cabinetmaker he could have named any vocation; plumber, electrician, mechanic. During the COVID-19 lock down, who did you miss? Perhaps it was the butcher to cut your meat, the electrician to fix your lights or the mechanic when the engine light.
How were individuals prepared to work with their hands in the past? For folks who lived on the farm and in small communities where the technology of work was the use of hands, people learned by doing and by apprenticing with others. By the late 1800s a course of study known as “industrial arts” was becoming common in schools across the country.
Industrial arts was designed to develop an understanding of technology and its impact on their lives. And although not everyone is a producer of material culture, all are consumers and users of the products of industry. One of its main goals is the development of technology literacy for all students in order for them to understand …technology (Schmitt, 1966, p 1-4). Schmitt describes the benefits of industrial arts education.
Industrial arts is an activity approach to learning, an opportunity for individualize student progression, an opportunity for helping students make career choices, an understanding of consumer products, a study of fundamental tools, materials and industrial processes and an understanding of industry and technology. These understandings lead to the development of a smarter consumer and individual with skills to support their own problems and concerns. Excellent benefits but today these opportunities are almost gone from our schools.
In a 1986 Los Angeles Times article, Moreland and Campbell write that shop classes, the wood, drafting, print, metal and other industrial arts courses that served as a rite of passage for several generations of men-are fast disappearing from the high school curricula. Buffeted by budget cuts, outdated by modern technology and put on low priority because of stricter academic graduation requirements, shop classes are becoming a luxury elective that few students can afford to take.
What happened to create this change? The reason was and continues to be the increase in academic classes students need take to graduate and that “eliminated a student’s’ chances for exploration of different fields and making good career decisions.
Somewhere along the way as modern societies evolved, we lost the value we place on people who could “do” things and replaced it with people who could “think” things. We’ve lost sight that the people who do things also have to think things. So, we told our children to use their brains and not their brawn and become MBAs. Today MBAs are a dime a dozen, struggling to find employment, while a good carpenter is a rare find (Newell, 2014).
In fact, over the last 30 years, it is not uncommon to hear the message to young people that they must go to college. This issue is partly due to our culture’s emphasis on going to college. Many high schools look to their university placement as the best judge of a quality education. That statistic discriminates against students for whom college is just not a good fit, especially when schools do little to inform students of non-collegiate options. It is unfortunate for those students who try college, but eventually drop out, feeling like a failure, when in fact, it wasn’t the right place for them from the start (Chamberlain, 2019).
Chamberlain (2019) states that America is facing an unprecedented skilled labor shortage. According to the Department of Labor, prior to the virus 7.6 million unfilled jobs existed but only 6.5 million were looking for work. Since the end of WWII little attention has been paid to the infrastructure of roads, highways, bridges, locks, dams, harbors, water systems, airports and many public buildings.
Aside from federal infrastructure spending, projected job growth in many building trades continues to be positive. Through 2026 there is a projection of better than average employment in all of the building trades but the only problem is, there simply may not be enough workers to employ. Becoming aware of this situation can help to mitigate the challenges the world is facing.
Keywords: Mechanical technology, alternatives to college, skilled labor
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