May Be Even Build a Boat

Illustration insert: despardes.com

Doug Stowe in The Hedgehog Review: A few years ago, when my daughter was a freshman at Columbia University, one of only a few from Arkansas, I had the audacity to propose to then-president Lee Bollinger that the university add a hands-on component to its core curriculum. The core curriculum is intended to build a common framework of understanding as a baseline for academic life and what proceeds from it. Even though my academic credentials might not have caught Bollinger’s attention, I believed that I had something to offer as a craftsman and woodworker, and a father.

Of course, the classics of literature and philosophy are important, but if you look just a bit earlier in Greek philosophy than Plato and Socrates, you find Anaxagoras, who had said that man is the wisest of all animals because he has hands. Much later, Rousseau suggested that if you put young people in a workshop, their hands and brains will be equally engaged, and they will become philosophers while thinking themselves only craftsmen. There’s a certain element of beauty in that. Imagine philosophers invested concurrently with thoughts of highest ideals and with a sense of humility concerning themselves and their place in the whole operation of life. We might find an important lesson there.

Manhattan is an island of granite. New York is a city made of brick, stone, and steel. Near Columbia University is St. John the Divine Cathedral, still unfinished. Meanwhile, on campus, the dorms are full of kids interested in doing something real, instead of just talking about it. This got me thinking.

After working in my woodshop for  twenty years or so and writing a couple books about it, I decided to teach woodworking K–12 at a local independent school. Along the way, I became acquainted with a system of craft education called “educational sloyd” (a curriculum that originated in Finland in 1865) that mirrored my own observations of how the hands and mind work in tandem and how each is diminished without the other. 

One of the goals of educational sloyd, and the reason it continues to be taught in schools throughout Scandinavia, is that it instills an understanding of the dignity of labor, a thing that American schools no longer teach. This was an important point since life in a democracy must be based on a sense of commonality and respect, regardless of one’s position in the vast scheme of things.

My proposal to Bollinger was as follows: Start with the basic elements from Greek philosophy—earth, air, fire, and water—and divide the incoming freshman class according to their elemental inclinations. Then provide concrete activities for student engagement along those lines. For water, for example, there’s the Hudson River, offering students the opportunity to go deep in ecological studies or maybe even build a boat. For earth, students might work with a skilled stonemason who would bring to life the rich labor history of their city. As for fire, hammer iron at a forge making the tools such as might have been used at St. John the Divine. (The models for these tools are on display in the basement of Grant’s Tomb just down the street.) For air, I would point, as a lifelong woodworker, to the trees that tower overhead, turning the stale breath of civilization into the freshness that sustains life. John Ruskin said, “Lay a brick level in its mortar, or take a straight shaving from a plank, and you’ll have learned a multitude of things that the words of man can never tell.”

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