THR Web Features   /   May 6, 2024

Maybe Even Build a Boat

Rediscovering the lessons of craft.

Doug Stowe

( Shutterstock, Inc.)

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.”

Supplementing the core curriculum with physical work would inject fresh energetic perspectives from the student’s own lives into the discussion of great works. These are the same great works so often proposed by professors as ideal for bringing folks together—even though, clearly, they have not. What’s more, working with the hands gives one the capacity not only to sense ideas but also to test and ascertain what the other senses have presented. In his Divine Dialogues, Plato observed “the simplest and purest way of examining things, is to pursue every particular by thought alone, without offering to support our meditation by seeing or backing our reasonings by any other corporal sense.” William James took an opposing but, I think, complementary view: “Philosophy lives in words, but truth and fact well up into our lives in ways that exceed verbal formulation. There is in the living act of perception always something that glimmers and twinkles and will not be caught, and for which reflection comes too late.”

It is interesting to note that Columbia University’s own Teachers College was founded to fulfill a desperate need for teachers of manual and industrial arts. The college’s first building on the Morningside campus was the Macy Manual Arts building and, the great mind behind it all, Grace Hoadley Dodge, a philanthropist and the first woman on the New York Board of Education, is commemorated with a hall in her name. When my daughter was at Columbia, a librarian from Teachers College began nabbing books related to the history of manual and industrial arts training that were being tossed out. She would box them and drop them off in my daughter’s on-campus mailbox so that I could pick them up when I visited. If they are wanted back (which seems unlikely) they are held in my own library in trust and will be returned to Teachers College upon request.

I have a simple hypothesis. We are suffering in this country from an anti-intellectual divide. It runs generally, but not exclusively, along a rural-urban divide. Perhaps if urbanites spent less time looking down on their rustic brethren and infused their own experience with the common wisdom that the hands can provide, the so-called anti-intellectual class might spend more time looking a little more favorably on their urban cousins. The result might be greater empathy for one another.

What I propose won’t fix the problems that ail Columbia and other universities at the moment. What camping protesters are doing will mark the most memorable and meaningful parts of their college careers because what they are doing is passionate and real, quite unlike sitting at desks, sequestered from the realities they will all face after graduation.

What I remember from my own college days is a mounting sense of frustration from being held back from trying to shape the world in which I found myself. In my senior year, I found my way into a pottery class. As I began to witness real material changes happening in my own hands, I felt a restored sense of self. That may seem trivial in comparison to doing something for wartime hostages held for months or for children dying under rubble that had been their homes. But our hands offer the potential of transformation, both large and small, and changing the world may be no further than an arm’s length away.