Are Tools Our Best Teachers?

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Call me crazy (you won’t be alone), but after 30-plus years I once again find myself in a play (I play the Marquis de Sade), which means I’ve been getting home from rehearsals, and now shows, well after my normal bed time. Needing to wind down a bit, when I got home on Tuesday, I tuned in my local PBS station just in time to watch Roy Underhill’s “The Woodwright's Shop.” I first met Roy at the Timber Framers Guild Eastern Conference in Troy, NY, in the 1980s. He did a pit-sawing demonstration, which caught the attention of many of us who were wrestling with the issue of whether we wanted to do our work with traditional hand tools or give in to the grid and fill our shops with noisy, dangerous power tools.

I next enjoyed Roy’s company at the Masters of the Building Arts Festival on the Mall in Washington, DC, where I had been asked to do a demonstration on traditional 18th-century timber framing. Roy shot an episode of his show there and couldn’t resist trying out the antique twyble he had purchased at a local antique tools shop. The twyble is a double-ended chisel with the handle in the middle and is used standing up to cut mortises. My next two interactions with Roy were at the Preservation Trades Network’s IPTWs in St. Clairsville, OH, and then in the Holy Cross Historic District in New Orleans after Katrina.

Having known Roy for so long, it was like sitting down with an old friend as I began to relax watching his show for the first time in quite a while. What came as a surprise was that Roy didn’t start his show in the usual semi-slapstick way he has of fumbling around in his cluttered wood shop looking for hand tools and half-worked pieces of wood. Instead, he sat down and started talking about books on woodworking and introduced his audience to his favorite author and teacher, Otto Salomon, and Otto’s theories on “Slöjd.” Otto coined the definition: “Slöjd is an old Scandinavian word having as its origin the adjective 'slög' that means ‘handy’. Slöjd means ‘craft’ or ‘manual skill.’”

Otto Salomon was born in Göteberg, Sweden, in 1849, and as he grew and studied in the Technological Institute in Stockholm and the Ultuna Agricultural Institute near Uppsala, he became enchanted with the process of teaching and went on to found several vocational schools. He felt that the educational practices of his time were too “theoretical,” particularly at the elementary school level. He felt that this had a negative impact on the education of many young people. He wrote:

“If practical manual work is introduced, the matter is changed, for many who are dull when the head works without the hand, excel when the use of the hand is required as well as that of the head, as in handicrafts. Children who are naturally skillful and dexterous when hand and head work together, although slow when the head works alone, have often more self-respect after discovering their power and skill; and if only one in 500 be so affected, even then the course would be worth introducing.”

It’s interesting to me how close this is to the thoughts of many of us as we try to understand the real and long range effect the removal of shop classes and hands-on education from both elementary and college-level programs is having and will have on the students who matriculate from our institutions. Salomon’s perspective on education holds much that could help us understand how educating the hand and mind together is so important, regardless of what occupational goals you have. His views on society in his book, The Slöjd System of Wood Working, written in 1892, are interesting as well. In it he wrote:

“We no longer absolutely despise hard bodily labor as we did a century ago, when to do nothing was considered more honorable than to work; yet even today we attach a certain stigma of inferiority to all forms of bodily labor. In the social work, the clerk ranks higher than the skilled artisan, and the workmen themselves are only too apt to consider that their labor is less honorable than that of their masters.”

Taken out of context, it isn't difficult to think that was written 100 years later in this country.

In my last blog I wrote that in some situations, I believe that the tools themselves are teaching me lessons which I can learn only from them. In truth, something as simple as splitting wood is a good example because the ax teaches you about wood. You learn from experience that no two pieces of wood are alike. You learn that wood has a pattern of cells or "grain" that, if you strike from the side, causes the ax to bounce off but if you strike from the end, the wood fibers split apart. If you look carefully, you even learn that some trees have twisted grain patterns and some straight.

But no matter what you believe about learning or education, you can't help but enjoy Otto Salomon’s take on it when he reminds us of something truly important.

“The teacher who concentrates on large amounts of factual knowledge during lessons will become neither an educator nor a teacher but merely an instructor, filling up memories with facts like stuffing meat into sausage. . .Education, cultivation of the mind, means what is left when we have forgotten what we learned in school.”