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The importance of learning how to make things

Progress isn’t always for the better. I have taught for many years that America is now a service-based economy and that this transition is a natural progression that we must learn to adapt to. The problem is that we are forgetting how to make things. We are terrific users of goods and outstanding providers of the services that drive our economy, yet is this really progress?

What was most telling to me was an interview a while back with Tim Cook from Apple when he was asked why so many of their products were outsourced overseas (that is beginning to change, by the way), and his response was unexpected. I am paraphrasing, but in essence he said it was less to do with the cost of manufacturing in the United States as it was the difficult time they had finding people with the right skills to do the work. Wow! Ironically, I get a similar response from chefs and restaurateurs when asked why they don’t hire more students from culinary schools.

If you look back, not too far back, you can see how quickly things have changed. In the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, every student who attended elementary school and sometimes into high school was enrolled in either “shop” (wood or metal) or “home economics” where they built some foundational building or cooking skills. In both cases, students were learning how to make things with their hands. There is something incredibly gratifying about building anything that takes form. It is a life skill that allows people to see, touch and experience the power of learning.

As a teacher, I have always found that the tactile experience that students have with making things benefits them in more ways than simply the thrill of creation. Making things requires students to use, really use those core academic skills that will allow them to carrying on with a successful career in the future. To build requires math, communication, physics, sometimes chemistry, problem solving, teamwork, physical conditioning, analysis and in many cases an understanding of history and other social sciences. To build and create is to become a well-rounded individual with opportunities to be successful in a career and in life.

Some students may use this skill of building as a stepping stone for a career in the trades while others utilize the planning and problem solving applications associated with making things in other careers that may not require them to build or fix, but rather to lead others in the accomplishment of those tasks.

Physiologically, the human body is designed to build things, whether it is a house, computer, automobile or plate of restaurant-quality food. Our hands are two of the best tools ever designed with the ability to sense, feel, manipulate and mold a product into something that is wonderful to see, use, experience or even taste. Your body, with its intricate muscle and bone structure, is calibrated to move to the needs of instruments of design and construction, lift, carry, turn and deliver. Everything about the body is built to be creative and to make things that work and satisfy. We were not designed simply to hold a keyboard. To not properly use the body in this fashion is depriving that human form of its rightful use. To not allow a student to actively use the body in this fashion, to not demonstrate and teach them how to unleash the potential of this human creative machine, is to deprive them of their birthright and an enormous sense of satisfaction.

Teachers are always looking for ways to allow the “light bulb to turn on” in the classroom. I can tell you from experience that it happens easily and often when the student is allowed to apply knowledge to the creation of a tangible product.

I have wondered why there is such a surge of interest in pursuing careers in culinary arts, and the more I investigate, the more I come to the same conclusion: People love to create; they have a real desire to make things for themselves and for others, to realize that sense of purpose when something that they invest their time in takes physical form.

America grew as a country based on Americans’ ability to make things better, faster and more efficiently than anyone else. Edwards Deming pushed American industry to constantly look at the creation of value based on the highest level of consistent quality, at the most appropriate price. What he never would have imagined was that we would fail at teaching new generations how to visualize and have the skills necessary to actually make things to manage in this fashion.

“Educo” is the Latin root word for education. The literal translation of this word means “to draw forth.” When education works, it is because teachers succeed in building those tangible skills in their students, allowing them to participate in their own enlightenment, their own education. As a society, we must consider spending more time training as part of the educational process and then allow our young people the freedom to create and build.

About Matthew Crawford’s recent book, “Shop Class at Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work,” this was written: “For those who felt hustled off to college, then to the cubicle, against their own inclinations and natural bents, ‘Shop Class as Soulcraft’ seeks to restore the honor of the manual trades as a life worth choosing. On both economic and psychological grounds, Crawford questions the educational imperative of turning everyone into a ‘knowledge worker,’ based on a misguided separation of thinking from doing, the work of the hand from that of the mind.”

This same principle can be applied to those classes in culinary arts or home economics, art and music that build an environment when students can take their acquired knowledge, build things that have substance and demonstrate the innate abilities that everyone is born with.

There is a national debate taking place around “core curriculum” and defining what is important and critical in America’s education model. I would suggest that any core curriculum involve hands-on application through courses that allow students to participate in the process of making things. Whether our young people take these core skills to a career in the kitchen, the wood shop, the engineering firm or the computer company is not the issue; the issue is providing them with the skills to chose to move in those directions if they want and to have the ability to do so.

Not everyone can become a chef, but everyone can learn to cook and feel the satisfaction derived from creating a dish. Not everyone can become a woodworker, architect, electrical engineer, computer designer or graphic artist, yet everyone can benefit from the skills that are the foundation of all of these trades. In the process, they will learn how applicable all of the “core concepts” are to life. Math, communication, social science, physics and chemistry are essential in any and every tactile profession. Let’s train and teach at the same time; it is what education should be about.

Support the trade and tactile skill classes in your local school – it is important!

Paul Sorgule lives in Saranac Lake and originally wrote this article for his blog at www.harvestamericacues.com.