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Posted at 1:00 PM ET, 12/22/2010

Bring back shop class

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Marc Epstein, a history teacher at Jamaica High School in Queens, N.Y., for the past 15 years, and a former dean of students. His articles on school violence, curriculum, and testing, have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers and he blogs for the Huffington Post. He also contributed to A Consumer's Guide To High School History Textbooks, edited by Diane Ravitch. Epstein earned a PhD in Japanese - American Diplomatic history.

By Marc Epstein
As student failures pile up, manual education might be poised for a comeback.

When I started teaching history at Jamaica High School in the mid-nineties, the shops in the basement had already been closed for nearly 10 years. Eventually the shops were converted into classrooms, at no small expense, and were reserved for double periods of English instruction for students with reading levels well below average.

No Child Left Behind required that these students be brought to proficiency. Manual education was not considered as an option for these students; it was only for dummies, the dominant thinking now went, or for those so disadvantaged that they could never hope to learn anything “real.”

It was not always thus.

“A century ago,” Charles Murray writes, “the parents of students in a typical high school worked at all sorts of trades, crafts, and professions.” And for generations afterward, their children learned manual skills in public schools. Knowing how to put a sheet on a bed and making “hospital corners,” sewing, washing, and rinsing dishes properly, and even planting and cultivating a vegetable garden, were part of my mother’s elementary school education at Brooklyn’s PS 16 in the 1920s.

For my part, I still remember embroidering a dishtowel that was to be a Mother’s Day gift in the fifth grade. There was even a fenced-off portion of our schoolyard at P.S. 139 where first-, second-, and third-grade students grew carrots, lettuce, radishes, and string beans. My friend Richie still has his gardening certificates.

The most memorable part of my two years at Halsey Junior High School were the shop classes, which all students, even those in the enriched and accelerated Special Progress programs, were required to take. My parents, who expected me to go to college, never questioned the efficacy of these classes. They felt it was important that I learn how to use my hands as well as my mind.

Back then, the value of manual education was broadly accepted and considered part of a liberal education in New York City schools. But today, caught in the maelstrom of political correctness and recklessly misguided educational philosophy, manual education has been tossed aside. As Murray writes, “upper-middle-class children can graduate from high school isolated from any contact with a world in which people make their livings by working their hands and without ever knowing the satisfactions that can come from non-academic forms of excellence.”

Attitudes toward manual education have come full circle over the last century and a half.

Our current distaste for the practice mirrors the disdain many 19th-century education reformers had for it. They believed that manual training had no place in the classroom because it didn’t promote intellectual inquiry.

But then John D. Runkle, president of MIT, initiated a revolution in American education that wedded manual to intellectual education. In 1876, Runkle visited the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia and came upon a Russian exhibition by Victor Della Vos, director of the Moscow Imperial Technical School.

Della Vos had developed “instruction shops” for each trade in a pedagogical order that allowed students to progress from one level to the next while studying math, physics, and engineering. Runkle thought that Della Vos’s process of instruction should be part of liberal education in an industrial society. And, according to educational historian Lawrence Cremin, “American education was never the same thereafter.”

The transformation didn’t end there. Another educator, Calvin Woodward, believed that Americans should “put the whole boy in school” and give him what was called a well-rounded education, one that shouldn’t be reserved just for those destined for advanced learning.

He wanted the “toiling classes” educated in the same fashion. Woodward opposed separating those destined for “work” from those destined for “thinking,” and he believed that book learning by itself couldn’t teach students how to be productive in the world. On the contrary, he argued, the drudgery of a books-only curriculum encouraged more students to drop out after completing eighth grade. By 1890, schools in 36 cities had instituted shop classes for boys and girls.

From that point on until the last 20 years or so, manual education had a stronghold in public schools. But today’s students, regardless of academic ability, don’t have the opportunity to learn manual skills unless they take an elective art course or work on an extracurricular activity that calls for hands-on activity. Educators have encouraged students to take the academic route regardless of their prospects for completing a degree in higher education.

My school, Jamaica High in Queens, has taken steps at remedying this, with some success. We run a program that guides those who have made little academic progress by age 17 toward acquiring a technical skill. But we have to bus these students to Co-Op Tech, the only facility of its kind in Manhattan-and not until they’ve taken the academic courses that qualify them for the GED exam, and wasted three years of high school.

It’s possible that another shift in thinking about manual education is on the horizon. As student failures pile up, some politicians have begun calling for a return to technical education.

“College isn’t for everyone, but education is,” New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in 2008, announcing a new initiative focused on vocational education in high schools and community colleges. “Traditionally, such career and technical education has been seen as an educational dead end. We’re going to change that.”

New York currently operates about two dozen vocational high schools, but there is no concerted effort yet to restore manual education in regular public high schools, even with an annual public high school budget now totaling $22 billion.

I wonder how much time and money we might save if the old shops in the basement were reopened, and all students, regardless of their academic aptitude, were given a daily dose of shop class.

Re-instituting manual education just might lead to a renaissance of common sense in how we educate our children.

-0-

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By Valerie Strauss  | December 22, 2010; 1:00 PM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Marc Epstein, Vocational ed  | Tags:  high schools, marc epstein, shop class, vocational education  
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Comments

Everyone involved in this subject, especially all local and state school boards, should read, study and discuss the book "Shop Class as SoulCraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work" by Matthew Crawford.
He makes a compelling case, both philosophically and socially, for returning the manual arts to required schooling.
Human history shows the necessity in many and various ways of real learning being intimately connected to hands-on activities. Our arrogance of focusing education only on college-bound subjects forgets the fact that all manual arts are completely intellectual. The mind must first tell the hands what to do!

Posted by: 1bnthrdntht | December 22, 2010 2:02 PM | Report abuse

I have thought this for years, teach kids who are not college material plumbing, welding, establish a CNA class to train kids for a job. Go to school in the morning for basic math, history, English, and then put them to work learning a skill.
Look, I have seniors who are going to school in the evening at a trade school learning welding/cosmetology so when they graduate, they can take the state boards, that way, they can then get a job. Why can't we do this in public schools? We did it at one time.

Posted by: ohiggins51 | December 22, 2010 2:29 PM | Report abuse

I enrolled in a 9th grade shop class in high school. Part of the curriculum was to make a wallet from a leather kit. I loved that course. It was about design and transferring design into a product.

Also, in the 9th grade I enrolled in art class. As one assignment we drew a background on a piece of plywood, then covered the pencil marks with yarn. We then painted glue in between the areas for background and spread colored gravel across the glue. I completed Mount Fuji with Lotus Blossoms. My Dad still has it.

I enrolled in wood shop in the 10th grade. I learned how to use tools and math to measure and make wooden bowls on a lathe. Later that same year I drafted requirements for a magazine rack made of wood and metal. Today, minus a chip on one corner, my Mother and Father kept that magazine rack for now nearly 45 years. The next year I drafted the design for and built a drafting table. My Father still has it. Over the years those measurement techniques and phases of development have served me well.

In my senior year I was in Family Living class. There were many parts of this class that would make some folks think it girly, but trust me, it taught me a lot about even living alone, shopping, food/nutrition, and budgeting.

It wasn't about the "items" as much as the ability to move from classroom to machine to product, or classroom to real life.

Posted by: jbeeler | December 22, 2010 2:32 PM | Report abuse

This article is so timely and long overdue.....maybe it's not too late to restore much of what we have lost:

- true understanding and practice of
craftsmanship: all one has to do is look
at the houses created in the first half
of the 1900s in the US - and the
history of the Arts & Crafts movement
to appreciate what can be created
with human hands AND intelligence. Once
the US was credited with the creation of
well-made goods, from cars to
appliances. It isn't too difficult to
see why other markets in the world have
surpassed us in various industries.

- a greater sense of self-sufficiency -
almost every person will need to make
home repairs at some point in their
life.....handling a simple hand drill,
dealing with electrical wiring, etc.
While Home Depot and Lowes offer
mini-classes for some of these things
and we publish all kinds of How-to-do-
to-do-this-or-that books, there is no
practice, no oversight of a patient
master tradesman, no underpinnings of
physics and engineering involved, no
sense of developed and sustained
mastery.

- respect for people who provide services
we often require: auto maintenance,
plumbing, hair-dressing, electrical
work, carpentry, landscaping.

- finding satisfaction in 'labors of love'
- once called hobbies - in things like
woodworking, ship-building, quilting,
home-made goods, 'tinkering' (garage
inventions)......

Winston Churchill, one of the greatest leaders in the 20th century, painted in his spare time. One of my brothers, who has a PhD, does woodworking. Many people in this country can have real JOBS doing some of the vocations described above.

A very wise psychologist I once met said to me, "you know, I think Freud missed something; he emphasized sex (relationships) and work; but I think we need to add in the hobby. In the worst of times, you may lose one of these things, and you may even lose two of these things; but you are unlikely to loose all three at once."


Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | December 22, 2010 2:36 PM | Report abuse

I would love to see auto mechanic programs added back into high schools.

Posted by: jlp19 | December 22, 2010 2:41 PM | Report abuse

There may be some renewed interest in manual education with the present emphasis on the engineering component of the STEM movement. Although I have concern with the present implementation of STEM in some schools, it may bring back an understanding of processes that has been lost. However, shop programs are notoriously expensive, aside from the upfront costs of machinery, there is the ongoing cost of maintenance and supplies. This creates equity problems if schools try to charge individual students for materials. I can't even imagine a school district funding an up-to-date auto repair shop program. I can't even imagine a school allowing students to go near some of the equipment we used in seventh grade like wood burning tools or band saws, or in eighth grade, like spot welding and metal working tools.

Posted by: buckbuck11 | December 22, 2010 3:16 PM | Report abuse

I was at a conference a few weeks ago where one of the keynote speakers "making a societal impact" was a designer showing how she was being "innovative" by teaching a shop class at a school in a poor, rural district in North Carolina.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nPnShadqeKE

She is doing a great job, but it just surprised me that her "innovation" was something that is pretty much standard for many industrial arts/CTE teachers.

Posted by: MisterRog | December 22, 2010 3:23 PM | Report abuse

Re buckbuck11: it seems there should be some way - we are trying to bump up our auto industry, aren't we? Perhaps some combination of school facilities with certain dealers, apprenticeships....????

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | December 22, 2010 4:06 PM | Report abuse

Re buckbuck11: it seems there should be some way - we are trying to bump up our auto industry, aren't we? Perhaps some combination of school facilities with certain dealers, apprenticeships....????

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | December 22, 2010 4:08 PM | Report abuse

I am old enough to remember being required to take home economics in junior high school while the boys took shop! Were they not using math skills?? I certainly had to apply math skills to sewing an apron. I think it is ironic and unfortunate that in the age of Howard Gardner's "multiple intelligences" our society does not recognize that intelligence comes in many ways. And yes... students who are college bound should have exposure to what is considered "trade oriented" learning just as students heading toward trades benefit from what we peg as "academic" subjects. Art is not considered a core subject yet it encompasses every part of our lives whether someone designed the look for the MAC computer or created an iconic sign such as "the stop sign"! Is this "a trade" subject or an "academic" subject? Why are we so quick to define academic vs non academic? Students at Stanford who were engineering students recently developed an incubator for under $200 that hospitals in 3rd world countries could afford. Both the designer of this incubator and the one creating the sewn prototype have equal importance! So why undervalue or overvalue one over another???? A future architect would certainly benefit from from a carpentry class. And a plumber certainly needs math and writing skills! Montessori and Regio Emiglia philosophies also integrate all kinds of learning into the classroom. This current education climate in no way encourages students to innovate (which is a cornerstone of our nation's success). Instead we are becoming a nation of followers.. "buying into" the high pressure, one size fits all testing climate. Students "on an academic route" to college are not prepared for the critical thinking that is so important to academic life in college. Sometimes we simply need to "think" with our hands, take risks, learn from failures. Students with vocational interests might learn English better or math better if they were allowed to learn it through something of interest to them (i.e autoshop, hairdressing etc...) And this notion of "differentiating learning is quite the education "buzz" word right now. Not to mention that teachers are constantly going to workshops where they are told "not to lecture students" but rather to allow students to ENGAGE with learning by applying it!
Hmmm....

Posted by: teachermd | December 22, 2010 5:41 PM | Report abuse

Years ago, my mother would have furniture upholstered at a voc ed high school program in Birmingham. It saved her money and she felt good about the training it was providing. Schools like this could be self-supporting--another plus.

Have you checked the cost of upholstery lately? This would be great job training for young people--and might also encourage recycling....

Posted by: mmkm | December 22, 2010 5:42 PM | Report abuse

Wow teachermd! Right on!

Posted by: MisterRog | December 22, 2010 6:05 PM | Report abuse

I agree with 1bnthrdntht. Matthew Crawford's book is excellent! Here is a lnk to an article I wrote about that book:
http://educationforum.dgtlpub.com/2009/2009-11-30/pdf/in_praise_of_trades.pdf

Posted by: wendhirs | December 22, 2010 6:17 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the supportive comment MisterRog! Now if only those who are propelling our public education into a massive "RACE TO THE TOP of Lord Knows What" would reconsider and do what is best for our nation's children!

Posted by: teachermd | December 22, 2010 8:13 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the supportive comment MisterRog! Now if only those who are propelling our public education into a massive "RACE TO THE TOP of Lord Knows What" would reconsider and do what is best for our nation's children!

Posted by: teachermd | December 22, 2010 8:13 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the supportive comment MisterRog! Now if only those who are propelling our public education into a massive "RACE TO THE TOP of Lord Knows What" would reconsider and do what is best for our nation's children!

Posted by: teachermd | December 22, 2010 8:19 PM | Report abuse

Not everyone should go to college. Shop class should come back into public education. Don't think it will happen big money is to be made in after high school education. Schools that teach computers, mechanics,hairdressing will never let it happen. The problem is students who either do not want to go to college or really shouldn't go to college will drop out of high school or fail through high school or can't afford the private school costs or need the money to support their family at home (remembver when they did that with child labor) will never use the private schools. Put it into the public schools and I bet we will see a lot less drop out rate. I can't understand our gov't they listen to politicians instead of teachers, administrators, child psychologist or school psychologist. Instead they listen to corporations and politician.

Posted by: lisamarie3 | December 23, 2010 7:47 AM | Report abuse

Not everyone should go to college. Shop class should come back into public education. Don't think it will happen big money is to be made in after high school education. Schools that teach computers, mechanics,hairdressing will never let it happen. The problem is students who either do not want to go to college or really shouldn't go to college will drop out of high school or fail through high school or can't afford the private school costs or need the money to support their family at home (remembver when they did that with child labor) will never use the private schools. Put it into the public schools and I bet we will see a lot less drop out rate. I can't understand our gov't they listen to politicians instead of teachers, administrators, child psychologist or school psychologist. Instead they listen to corporations and politician.

Posted by: lisamarie3 | December 23, 2010 7:49 AM | Report abuse

I have a problem with steering kids with low academic achievement into "manual" classes.

These days "trades" need workers who can deal with digital equipment, teach themselves new skills and navigate complicated diagrams and poorly-written manuals.

That's not a job for those with low academic skills.

We can not excuse the educational system's inability to teach basic and semi-advanced mathematics and reading for understanding by tracking low performers into the trades.

A recent article in this newspaper reported that many trade apprentices, have at least two years of college, others a full degree.

Let the market reward those who are willing to learn what they must, but let's keep the schools on track to teach even the low-preformers the skills they need.

Posted by: RedBird27 | December 23, 2010 8:30 AM | Report abuse

Just want to share a link to the wonderful blog of Mr. Wiemer, a shop teacher in Dallas Center, Iowa. We see here that shop is for middle schoolers too. The photos of students at work and the products of the labors really bring life to all the wise words above:

http://mrwiemersshop.blogspot.com/

John Norton, middleweb.com

Posted by: JohnN1 | December 23, 2010 9:00 AM | Report abuse

My grandfather, one of the top three lawyers in the US in his field, spent weekends either in his shop making furniture, or rebuilding car engines, a skill I learned from him, which came in very handy in the 70s when I was having some economic difficulties and needed to fix my car myself, and build a few pieces of needed furniture. My grandmother the opera singer taught me to knit and crochet; my home ec teacher taught me to sew--I am now an avid quilter. I am also a national board certified teacher, so I use my mind quite well, thank you. My father, the professor, was not very handy, and I always felt sorry for him as I changed his oil or repaired stuff around the house for him.
To this day I am perplexed by the disdain so many intellectuals hold for manual skills. I feel that I had a well-rounded and interesting education--home ec and drafting classes gave me a chance to relax my mind at some point in an otherwise intense day. These classes also gave me an opportunity to be creative in ways that can never be achieved in "academic" classes. It is common knowledge that the reason America leads the world is because our system encourages creativity. Why are we destroying the very thing that makes us strong?

Posted by: pattipeg1 | December 23, 2010 9:17 AM | Report abuse

Many of the schools around here still have shop classes; I recently turned down an opportunity to substitute for the middle school "industrial arts" teacher. (It's hard enough for a sub to keep kids in line when they aren't armed with tools!) Most non-college students, however, try to get into the Career Technology Center, which accepts students from school in several districts, teaches academic classes in the morning and vocational programs in the afternoon. And yes, you can get a cheap haircut from the cosmetology students and there is a child-care facility and an auto-repair facility. (Incidentally, I am told that being an academic sub there is a dream--all the students were name tags and there are no behavior problems, since if serious troublemakers will be sent back to their regular schools. I suspect the better behavior is also do to the fact that they spend the afternoons engaged in what they consider "real" work that makes a real difference to the customers.)

But manual arts in the individual schools began disappearing for two reasons. One was expense; besides the cost of a really good program and equipment, once males and females began demanding equal access, it just got too costly to teach shop and home ec to all students. Second, when the school administration and parents began considering it suitable only for those who were "too dumb" to prepare for college, the attitude affected the teachers and they tended to be among the less competent teachers. My parents were horrified to learn that my brother's shop teacher was allowing the left-handed boys--like my brother--to reach across the power saw to get at the switch.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | December 23, 2010 4:00 PM | Report abuse

Many of the schools around here still have shop classes; I recently turned down an opportunity to substitute for the middle school "industrial arts" teacher. (It's hard enough for a sub to keep kids in line when they aren't armed with tools!) Most non-college students, however, try to get into the Career Technology Center, which accepts students from school in several districts, teaches academic classes in the morning and vocational programs in the afternoon. And yes, you can get a cheap haircut from the cosmetology students and there is a child-care facility and an auto-repair facility. (Incidentally, I am told that being an academic sub there is a dream--all the students were name tags and there are no behavior problems, since if serious troublemakers will be sent back to their regular schools. I suspect the better behavior is also do to the fact that they spend the afternoons engaged in what they consider "real" work that makes a real difference to the customers.)

But manual arts in the individual schools began disappearing for two reasons. One was expense; besides the cost of a really good program and equipment, once males and females began demanding equal access, it just got too costly to teach shop and home ec to all students. Second, when the school administration and parents began considering it suitable only for those who were "too dumb" to prepare for college, the attitude affected the teachers. College prep students were urged to take the courses for an "easy A"--a course you didn't have to work in--and too many of the teachers considered them baby-sitting courses. My parents were horrified to learn that my brother's shop teacher was allowing the left-handed boys--like my brother--to reach across the power saw to get at the switch.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | December 23, 2010 4:04 PM | Report abuse

Here in San Francisco, the high school that offers shop classes is accessible only to the highest-net-worth families (and the lucky scholarshipped few). The shop classes are a hallmark of elite and exclusive private Lick Wilmerding High School, an attractive enticement to applicants.

Ponder THAT irony...

Posted by: CarolineSF | December 23, 2010 8:55 PM | Report abuse

I taught at a very academic high school that had long ago abandoned shop classes on the theory that 99 percent of students were going on to college. It was obvious, however, that many students, particularly boys, would have benefited from a class that didn't involve academics at least once a day -- a time that they could calm down and perhaps find something special they could be proud to do. The all-academic school day heightens the ADHD in many students.;

Posted by: folgers | December 24, 2010 7:16 PM | Report abuse

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