I was planning a blog entry on the D-I-Y movement and the industry it has spawned, but I kept thinking of references to the shop classes I had in high school. Most school systems long ago abandoned those classes, the shops have been eliminated or fallen into disrepair, and the idea that kids could learn something valuable from hands-on activity seems quaint today at best. Still, several of my fellow members of our school system’s Perkin’s Grant advisory committee have mentioned how many different things they learned in shop class. The administrators dismiss this as so much nostalgia, but I think they are missing the point.
To begin with, shop class wasn’t a high school thing when I grew up; you started taking wood shop and metal shop in 7th grade, the first year of what we called Junior High in Western Pennsylvania. Boys in 7th and 8th grade were compelled to take wood shop and metal shop in respective 9-week marking periods (music and art made up the other two marking periods). In addition, three weeks of each shop class were dedicated to Mechanical Drawing. Beginning in 9th grade, you could choose your own electives, and I chose 18 weeks of wood shop followed by 18 weeks of metal shop. Did I make anything during those shop classes which survives today? Maybe my mother still has the cast aluminum alligator nut-cracker I made for my father, but that’s probably it. Were those classes a waste of time and taxpayer money? No, nothing could be further from the truth. I have many fond memories from shop class, but there are three things that I think apply to all who took these courses, and might be reasons why they should be returned to the curriculum today:
Learning to Learn – Some subjects in school are cumulative, some are offered as samples. Math is cumulative, in a linear sort of way; we progress from easy fundamental math to more and more difficult math throughout our education. English and history are cumulative in a widening circle sort of way; as we understand more of each, we can better understand more of each. Shop class was like math, we learned fundamental techniques, and then we combined those basic skills to form composite skills that allowed us to solve problems by building or fixing things. Like math, the skills we learned in shop class remain valuable to us today. Shop fits into the framework of continuous or lifelong learning, in that we can continue learning more about these subjects and eventually we can share that knowledge with younger people. We can do the same with math, but I’m guessing there are more weekend woodworkers than there are recreational mathematicians.
Confidence building – We hear oh so much about the need to bolster self-confidence and self-esteem today, but it strikes me that we implement that more by giving everyone a “Participant” ribbon, or playing sports without keeping score than in real confidence building activities. While I doubt many of my 7th grade classmates are building furniture in their garage today, every single one built a functional notepad holder in wood shop and a working flour scoop in metal shop. In preparations for those projects, we learned how a hand plane worked, and how to disassemble, clean, sharpen and adjust it. We learned how to layout and cut sheet metal, how to bend it and how to fasten it together with solder and with rivets.
Reality – While other teachers feared our ascension into young adulthood, shop class was different, shop class was real and we were treated as young men who needed to learn certain lessons very well. You could get hurt in shop class, and you could cause others to get hurt. We learned how to operate dangerous machines safely. If we violated safety instructions, we lost machine privileges. If we violated those instructions again, we were switched into a study hall – you could not fail shop class, you just got thrown out. In addition to learning that our actions had consequences, we learned responsibility. When lumber arrived, we unloaded trucks. When the dust collection system became full, we emptied it. In the final days of the school year, we took our unfinished projects home and began cleaning the shop, sanding and refinishing work benches and organizing everything in storage.
I am a DIY enthusiast, and many of the skills I make regular use of today, I learned in shop class over 40 years ago. The lessons I am most grateful for though have nothing to do with tools, or techniques. Learning the value of work, the value of practice and preparation and learning how to learn. Shop class taught me that learning is cumulative and that my capacity to learn wasn’t exhausted when I graduated.
Note: If you enjoyed this post, you will love this book: Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford.