Shop Class

clip_image002I 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.

10 thoughts on “Shop Class

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    1. That was an important take-away from shop. In fact, a future post will highlight a specific lesson I learned along those lines (at least it’s in my notes). We all have our strengths, unfortunately, some excel at being jerks. Thanks for stopping by Steve.

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  1. I took home ec. I don’t regret it, because I am seriously clumsy and seriously crafty. My home life growing up had a lot of both, but I knew by 7th grade that I wasn’t very good at measuring twice and cutting once. Even now, I do things on my own, telling The Mister, “I don’t need to you to do it, I just need you to help me with the (measurement) numbers.” I bet I say that at least once a month. I cut a lot of things, but he cuts the woods and metals.
    Sassy goes to the same middle school I went to and says they don’t offer Home Ec or Shop anymore. I’m not sure if it’s true or if she just doesn’t have contact with any of those kids. I asked her if she knows kids that make things as a hobby and she said she knows a knitter, a stain-glass maker, and a kid who builds computers. Not too shabby, I thought.
    Now you know parents these days would complain of their kids unloading lumber, getting splinters and band-aids, Dan ;)

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    1. You’re last comment is probably too true Joey. Not to mention getting dirty from the sawdust and chips in the dust collector. Our high school reopened the shop, but I think that was more the work of a particular tech-ed teacher. I’m not sure they still have it. He taught practical home repair type stuff, like changing a light switch or a faucet. The kids loved it. Our district does partner with a technical college so kids can start learning how to weld in high school, but it’s only for kids who want to be welders. I never wanted to be a welder but I love knowing how to weld. Thanks for following the link to my early days in blogging.

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      1. High school still has shop and auto body, but similar to there, they’re the beginning of a trade program at a career center. Those students spend mornings or afternoons there as they finish up.
        My swing set could use a welder…I’m sure it’s nice to have the skills!

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  2. We have a different school system in France, at least until I lived there. Only students who chose a professional path would have these shop classes. However we had sewing ( including knitting, crochet and macrame) in middle and high school. But my most favorite was pyrogravure (is it pyrography in the US?).
    When my husband does some workwork I go back in time because of the smell of wood when he uses the saw. This smell is unmistakable and will always remind me of these small art pieces I created during pyrogravures classes.
    So agree with you that such classes give us confidence. As a girl I felt powerful, using tools. My kids have been lucky to be finished with high school before the major cuts happened in schools. They have been able to do some wood working too and loved it.
    Glad you highlighted this post on your blog.

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    1. Thanks for looking back on this. This was only the second post I ever wrote in this blog. You’re right about the smell of woodworking. It’s unmistakable. I’m glad your kids had a chance to experience some of these classes. My daughter was more into art in school but has been working in my shop since she was quite young (hand tools). We had a short period where shop made comeback at the high school but that has passed again due to budgets being squeezed.

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      1. My kids were into art too. Especially music for two of them. But working with your hands and tools is a fabulous experience I wish all kids could have at school since too many don’t have it at home. Like your daughter with you or mine with their dad.
        I found it really cool to get to read your second post.

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