Sunday, February 2, 2014

Against a sea of troubles

At Lincoln High School in San Francisco, Thursday night, in an intimate overheated auditorium, Mr. Kim's honors English seniors enacted scenes from Hamlet, strung together in approximate succession, so that together they took the form of the play.  Each scene had its own director, cast, costumes, stageing and theme.  One group dressed in surgical scrubs, interpreting the play through the lens of Grey's anatomy.  Another performed the final duel using nerf guns.  Most of the students memorized their lines and surprisingly many delivered the distant text as if they were speaking it, so that their character and meaning came through clearly.  At the end, a student presented a gift to Mr. Kim with the (approximate) words, "You have set such high expectations for us and because we love you, we strive to meet them."

What does this have to do with woodworking education?

The students in Mr. Kim's class will never forget Hamlet.  The lines they memorized they will carry with them.  Meanings which they don't understand today might become clear to them decades from now.  Whenever they see a play or a movie they will understand to what extent it is but one interpretation among many, that it could have been done differently and meant something else.  Few of these students will likely go into theater, but they've all learned something of intrinsic value.  This kind of learning --learning for its own sake, learning for personal enrichment, has gone so out of style that's it looked on at best as a luxury and at worst, with disdain.

I've gotten into the habit of asking people if they took shop class when they were young.  Those who did invariably remember not only what they made, but the tools and techniques they used.  It sticks with them.  (Except for me and a few others) it hasn't furthered their career.  But they learned something that lasted, that's always there.  Think of the immense volume we learn in school that we manage to forget, as if our body had a secondary lymphatic system just for that purpose.  There must be some worth in what little remains.

The kind of learning I witnessed Thursday night is not the standard fare at Lincoln High School.  There is a rising tide in secondary education --of trying to quantify all learning, of valuing only that knowledge which will lead to employment, of preparing students for our busy, stressed lives by instilling early the habits of busy-ness and stress.  Mr. Kim's class, some woodworking education, all forms of authentic learning are islands in a rising ocean.  They're still there. Yet soon, they may all be underwater.  Or soon, the flood may begin to recede.

My high school has the motto, "That each generation may introduce its successor to a higher plane of life."  Too many schools today operate on the principle that each generation should introduce its successor to a higher standard of living.  Hamlet doesn't improve one's bottom line.  Woodworking does little for most balance sheets.  Music is a poor trade for most who ply it, yet clings to its position in many schools because its advocates cleverly make the case that music makes us better at math and is prerequisite for anyone who hopes to become CEO of a major corporation.

I humbly predict that as woodworking education makes its resurgence, we who understand the intrinsic value in woodworking will learn to sell it to our skeptical peers by finding that the kind of thinking that one learns woodworking will be essential to our country's future economic well being.  That those who learn to express a thought with their hands will have an enormous advantage over those who can only think through the interface of a screen.  That the best engineers, architects, builders, inventors and innovators of all kinds will come from those who learn at a young age to manipulate the physical world, not just the virtual approximation.

There might be some truth in this line of thought.  That woodworking prepares one for great but other endeavors.  Yet the opposite case also has merit.  Think of president Carter, the highest-profile contemporary American woodworker.  Perhaps his years in public service inform his craft.

We live in a society whose uniqueness lies in the way in which it assigns value. Very little has value in and of itself.  Each thing has value because it can lead to some other thing.  Education has value because it can lead to prosperity.  Wealth has value because it can lead to more wealth.  Sacred honor, so dear to our country's founding fathers, seems naive and foolish to us today for the simple reason that its value is intrinsic.  Music's value is intrinsic.  Art's value is intrinsic.  As is love's.

This brings us back to Mr. Kim.  The sweltering, tiny theater.  The raucous, enthusiastic audience, the proud, accomplished students.  The gift presented as an afterthought, the few words of presentation ad-lib: You have set such high expectations for us and because we love you, we strive to meet them.

That's something to keep in mind as we think about the reestablishment of woodworking education.  Where will be the accomplishment without high expectations and where the learning without love?

No comments:

Post a Comment