The School Shop

THE significance of the shop in the grade school, or even in the high school, is not understood in its total bearing on the development of children and the society for which they are being prepared.

If you are content — as most schools imply by their standard processes — with society as it is, and if you expect and hope for nothing very different, then things may remain more or less as they are, with the shop in the very inferior place in which it is found, and with the people who teach in shops wholly unequal to the magnificent opportunity afforded. At the bottom of this comparative indifference to the school shop is the philosophy — a social philosophy on which the world’s institutions, even of the standard democratic type, may smash up — that the hand may be dishonored with impunity. By dishonored, I mean that handwork may be considered inferior to brain-work to such an extent that the disparity between the rewards has, in the industries, reached the elastic limit, and prompt and copious adjustments in the other direction are imperative.

There is no health or promise of longevity in any society that consists of a huge mass of Nibelungen — spiritually, mentally, and sometimes physically, underground — beating incessantly on the anvils of their monotonous tasks; and at the other end the people of Walhalla, engaged in intrigue and exploitation, in the great game of industrial production, and, as a result of it all, poisoning the air with their banalities.

Between these two extremes wanders at present a rather bewildered multitude, convinced of but one thing on the whole, namely, that climbing up into the seats of the scornful leisure class is the important issue in life, overrating the brain-worker, underrating the hand-worker, their own hands hanging, — rather limply, — rattling knives, spoons, and forks; largely uninformed, unskilled, wasted.

Too many people confess without shame that they ‘can’t use their hands.'

Do they know or care, I wonder, that the only reason why a brain-worker has a brain is because his ancestor, that blue-faced, grimacing, arboreal apparition, had a hand — a small, black, sinuous hand — with an opposable thumb? It picked things up and gazed intently at them in its shifty, nervous way — dropped them, picked them up, took apart anything that would come apart, and then put it together again. Got a stick and dug a hole with it; got a stone and beat nuts with it; tied the stone to the stick, and was electrified by the results. And so, painfully, agonizingly, while geologic ages crept by — under the same sun, moon, and stars that light us on our own confident way, these hands of our poor ancestors built your nest and mine, O complacent one! And will you then forget this? Is there any point of honor involved in this matter of hand-work?

Whether there is or no, you are involved. You cannot longer neglect the sources of sanity and strength; and these are not in brains, but in brains plus hands. And out of brains and hands combined comes that spiritual thing which alone irrigates the life of men — the thing which, after thirty years as carpenter’s son and carpenter, produced a man capable of stooping to the earth before the Magdalen, and asking that most penetrating question of the brain-workers standing there with theirstones; and in his profound oriental way, telling those immortal stories of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. Will you trace that genealogy back to the black hand of the ape and then not reverence that hand and all hands?

The old school system under which the writer suffered was, of course, far worse than the present one in respect to this shop question. But then the life of families was much more manual than it is now. There were no telephones or electric lights, very few theatres and these expensive, no amusement parks, no automobiles, no moving pictures; in fact, there was a very different standard of interests. It was much more common to make things that could be made than to buy them, and children did more housework. Mother was not so apt to be either a ‘great lady’ or an imitation of one, with a charming manner but defective discrimination. And father was not diverted by an automobile and a golf-stick to a condition of almost total futility so far as teaching his children was concerned.

Mother and father taught the boys and girls very many very important things involving both hands and brains. Since they stopped, we have Domestic Science and Manual Training in schools. But they are still occupying humble places. The school person does not yet admit the value of shops in the school. He still sees mostly the formulæ dictated by the high schools and colleges in the form of ‘requirements.’ To be ‘educated’ or not is to pass or not

pass the tests of the school people. You may be ‘educated ’ and still be able to pass those tests; but there are many chances that you can pass them only by stultifying yourself. And also it can safely be stated that fifty per cent of the cultivatable area of children’s minds is not touched at all but goes to complete waste — like a rainless land.

However that may be, it is well to consider this, that under the greenness and blossoming and fruitage of the mind there are certain very deep foundations, namely, the work of men’s hands.

And if you get a generation of people to thinking that the vegetation that grows out of this soil is so superior to it that it can afford to insulate itself, why then you get a generation whose strength has clean gone out of it, like the strength of Antæms held off the earth by Hercules.

Teachers, lawyers, ministers, statesmen, writers, and business-men must be only phantoms and something less than real when they are in touch only with their own kind, and shut off from this other kind, whose opinion, though slow and sometimes inarticulate, after all is the final opinion, because the whole organic chemistry of society can be produced only by the salts which they supply. There is a very strong current in our affairs even to-day running from a region known as Feudalism, which is not any particular place in history so much as a particular area in the human heart, and one of the coldest and darkest. And this feudalistic polar current can chill a great many generous efforts in school and out.

And yet, too, hand-work needs always to be interpreted to itself, in order to feel itself an integral part of all that is beautiful and illuminative. It cannot be merely vocational; it cannot be postponed to the high-school and technical-school period. It belongs in the elementary school, and should be given there the space and the time its importance demands, namely, as much space and time as any most favored subject. Over the door of such a school, you could then write these two words of Horace, — ‘Integer vitæ,’— meaning wholeness of life, symmetry of life, soundness of life, and, therefore, poise and strength of life.

May I describe a shop and a shopman as, let us say, they exist in the school at X.

The shop is on the ground floor, with a special yard of its own, secluded and remote from the violence of the general school grounds. Over all the walls of this shop are maps, blue prints of locomotives and cars, big colored posters of steamers and sailing vessels, old models of all sorts, but especially of ships, besides innumerable samples of the work of pupils past, and present. Lathes and racks of tools, benches, shavings and lumber, a band-saw and other machinesaws.

And, strange to say, some enlightened school board allowed a great fireplace, with a big clay head of Pan plastered on the front of it by the teacher, and a potter’s wheel and kiln in a corner, where people with impulses toward pots and tiles and glazes can express themselves.

It is evident that the school board is only too happy to leave this department alone, except to supply anything it wants — when and as it wants it. When you find a spring in a thirsty land, you do not fill it with mud and gravel, unless you are an average school board passing that way, dragging the clanking school-machine in a cloud of dust.

Outside this schoolroom the children have built a harbor for ships. Down to the harbor goes the village street, with the miniature houses of the community, the wharfs and wharf-buildings; and at anchor in the ‘stream’ lie the model vessels: schooners, square-rigged clippers, and craft of various sorts built and rigged by boys and girls; and lovely to behold, with one perfect poem by the ‘old man’ — the Santa Maria of 1492. There they swing to their moorings, reflect themselves in the water, and brush against the jewel-flower leaning over the side. Here new vessels are constantly launched and old ones refitted, houses repaired and replaced, furnished, and fenced.

In the shop, locomotives and cars, airplanes, steamships and destroyers, submarines and chasers, houses and furniture, and every sort of thing that goes with this teacher’s plan of manual training, are made.

‘We made the harbor out of concrete,’he tells me, ‘and laid out the town, and planted the things, and started the water, and, by the gods, Nature adopted it at once! Within an hour there was a water-skipper rowing himself across, and the green and brown dragon-flies did acrobatics over it, and, best of all, after we had a lot of fish in it, one day we heard the exciting rattle of the belted kingfisher — and there he sat, like an Indian chief, and, if you please, he dived in and got one of our biggest ones!

‘You see, we make houses with things in them. But we get the drawings of actual houses from architects, and scale them down, and go by the drawings. Or we make our own drawings, as we did for the simple houses of the fishing village. Girls would rather make houses than anything else, and the furniture — maybe that is unfortunate, but it is true. Their adventure is a house adventure; they seem to know it—God knows how! And think how many of them are going to be poor little ‘apartment’ creatures. Ah, what a shame! what a shame! All that mysterious power, and that most exquisite aroma of the woman and her household, sterilized by these stony compressors of life — these apartments! I read recently Hudson’s Far Away and Long Ago—there was a household for you!

‘So we make houses and nothing but good houses — with proportions and window-spacing right and roof-lines right. And then we furnish them, from cellar to attic: beds and bathtubs, looking-glasses, chairs, and tables; and we live in our houses, we sing in them, we love them and the grounds around them. We do everything the best way

— considering our age; not the second best or the third best. I think I am more interested in girls than in boys because, after all, they are the determining factors — if they will only stick; if they refuse to allow the temperature of modern life to evaporate their fertility,

— you know what I mean, — mental, moral, and physical.

‘Now take this business of making ships. If you can get a feeling for ships into boys and girls, what can you get along with it? Oh, lots of things, of course, but, among them, this — the beauty of economized strength and the ugliness of waste. There is n’t a thing about a ship that is not necessary, and there is n’t a thing that is not compressed into the smallest dimensions compatible with the strength required. There is no technique so organic, so moulded by nature’s forces, as the technique of shipbuilding. And the result is, you get about the most beautiful thing a man ever made.

‘“Don’t waste yourselves,” I tell them, “unless you want to be a scow, something to be forever towed about, a flat-chested, slab-sided drag on the universe.” And then there’s all the historical romance and geographical significance of ships.

‘We read a good deal about old Salem, about that Derby family and the boys they bred then, who commanded East Indiamen when they were twenty-five, — The Clipper Ship Era; that’s a great book, — and we read all sorts of things, from Conrad and Masefield and Richard Dana.

‘When I have my own school, it will be where you can look out every window on to the level, blue, flashing sea, with gulls swaying and screaming. And after school, down we tumble into all kinds of boats, with red turbans and sashes, ear-rings and knives, wooden legs and black spots, and trim the sheets for our own Treasure Island where we have things buried — especially some kind of grub.

‘And here are our locomotives. We got drawings; you can’t make anything produce the illusion that it’s a real thing, that you ’re only looking at it from a long way off, unless you get proportions right. As soon as you do that, you see, even though this Pacific type six-coupled passenger locomotive is only 18 inches long, it’s got weight— what? and dignity, and the atmosphere of a whole railroad. You can hear it sizzle, can’t you?

‘The locomotive is a wonderful symbol of human integrity. The people who make locomotives have simply got to be honest to the core. You can make plenty of things with bad spots in them which won’t show up. There are too many people who could n’t possibly be trusted to make a machine like this. Soundness of heart, — integrity, — that’s the first requisite of the locomotive-builder.

‘And we worked on Santa Marias, having got a great send-off by reading up bits of Hakluyt, and things about Prince Henry of Portugal, and an article by some fellow explaining the war — explaining how the discovery of America had taken the pressure off Europe, but now the pressure was on again. Well, I made mine as carefully as I could, because it was a lovely subject.

‘Look at her! Spain and the Cape Verde Islands! Dagos with red sashes and big pistols and knives and hairy chests. And the old man up there, smelling his way across the meridians, walking up and down, talking in low tones, day after day, two months— when, bang! a light ashore, and the land of Abraham Lincoln at daybreak.

‘And there’s the Fram over there, with the stack and the foreyard. The Fram of Nansen and of Amundsen — a great boat. Oh, we know all about her, and about the Thetis and the Bear and the Albatross; and we know about the men, from Dr. Franklin down, anyhow. We’ve read all their stuff; and what stuff it is! Is n’t it funny they never get going on this sort of thing upstairs? [In the schoolrooms.]

‘We read the things that Scott and Shackleton did just the other day — Shackleton going back, and back again, to get those men left behind — Shackleton is a great name in this shop. And there’s the Fram standing there, with the crew down below — old Sverdrup and his boss and his folks, hard as iron and gentle as babies. There’s something fit for a man to talk about when he’s making the Fram — how to be brave as a lion, keen as a knife, but harmless as a dove; how to be like Nansen, Amundsen, Scott, and the rest.

‘We talk of these things, and I have an idea it goes in; I don’t know — nobody knows — it’s all a gamble, of course. But that’s what the Fram was built for — to get that idea across. What honesty and directness, and the pure fine stuff there is out in the open and among this sort of people! And look at the environment of these poor children, the quality of the days and nights of their parents. The richer they are, the worse it is: a terrible mess, that’s all you can call it.

‘Do you think the war has clarified things much? Perhaps for many of those who were in it; but I don’t notice much change in the people I meet, except the labor people.

‘Let me give you an idea what we have to say about labor. We made four ocean steamships. There’s one of them: 34 feet draft, 882 feet long, four decks above the gunwale. The Titanic. Oh, the things to talk about! Did you ever read that book, The Truth about the Titanic, by the man who stood all night up to his knees in Arctic water on a raft, with seventeen other men, not daring to turn their heads? And old Captain Smith; think of the things in the mind of that man as his ship struck! There’s a symbol now that’s interesting, — that Titanic, — rushing through the Arctic sea, between two abysses, all ablaze with light and warm with its life and power; and then that cold finger touches it, and it trembles — and stands there under the impassive stars a while. I can never forget it. How can anybody? And I feel called upon to talk to these boys and girls about the Titanic.

‘But what I was going to say was this: What won the war? England’s merchant marine, for one thing — with every ship carrying on her bottom plates stokers and engineers through the submarine zone; with no show at all; killed like rats; never expected to survive — doomed from the start. Rough stuff; but, Lord, what fidelity! Conspicuous bravery we know all about. Conspicuous bravery is easy compared with inconspicuous bravery.

‘Did you ever read that Odyssey of a Torpedoed Transport? Well, that’s what I mean, inconspicuous fidelity to the bitter end—“to the final drinking of the consommé,” as the Frenchman said

‘Now take tools and materials,’ says this teacher. ‘There must be great talk of formal discipline and all that, where textbooks are involved, because textbooks are the most uninteresting books in the world, and it is supposed by many people that the test of your character and the hope of your future consist in whether or not you are able to overcome your perfectly proper repugnance to these textbooks. But the discipline of the shop is grateful. There are exceptions — some of them known to everybody, no doubt. There are children who are congenitally averse to manual occupation; but the great majority of children crave it, even where the conditions are unattractive; and practically all of them would be deeply interested in it, if the conditions were made as congenial as they can easily be made.

‘And the value is in every single step of both plan and execution. You can plan, but cannot execute, an impracticable thing. And the practical thing to which you are reduced suppresses those extravagant fancies with which you began; in other words, disciplines your imagination. You are up against inexorable things. Tools are inexorable things. If they are n’t used exactly right, there is the evidence. A square and a level and a plumb-bob are absolutely final and positive definitions; and you rejoice with an inward joy in your surrender to the dictates of these judges of manual righteousness.

‘Materials are the most perfect medium for the experience which shall illuminate the soul and ripen the mind; for they oppose your effort, and against that beneficent and lovely resistance you work out your ideas, with patience, with forethought, with skill, with pride, with self-revelation.

‘Take wood, the stuff we use: white pine, cedar — smell that!’ — handing me a cedar-chip, — ‘and maple and birch for things that have to be harder.

‘“How did this wood come to pass; what’s the process? What did you have to do with it?” That’s what I tell them. “And do you propose to waste this wonderful thing that simply cries out to you to use it sympathetically?”

‘There’s hickory, now. Hickory loves to be made into the handles of tools, and parts of wagons, things that are wrenched and twisted. But most of all it wants to be made into a bow. So we made a lot of hickory bows and arrows, feather-tipped and pointed. A nice job, that arrow-making. And while we make bows and arrows, we talk about Indians and play Indians, and practice shooting at targets, and have no end of fun tracking things, with a fire and great talk of adventure. A teacher of manual training wants to know a lot of stories, and if he can tell them, he’s got his class nailed — they’ll go with him through fire and flood. A man ought to have a pretty big range in his stories, and not be afraid to take enough time for them either, provided he can put them over right. And when he can’t tell them, he can read them. Take a thing like Wolf, the StormLeader. I assure you there are parts of that thing I actually can’t read, it has such an intense appeal. And then there’s the boyhood of John Muir, for instance; and lots of good stuff besides. There’s Beebe writing astonishing things in the Atlantic, or McFee — fellows like that. If they used these things upstairs, I would n’t have to; but they don’t and they won’t. Do they ever think of Fabre, for instance, in connection with their nature study? Never! Never once!

‘A manual-training teacher has the best chance in the whole school to connect up with life — with ethics, with romance. Yes, I know it: even the people who have these things in them are timid about exposing them. The other kind of person, who as likely as not is the school principal, shoots off some poison-gas in the shape of “practical” things to work at. Lord, the superintendents I have known!'

They work days in this fascinating shop, and nights too; and all work is interrupted frequently for talks or for a song or a story, while the instructor smokes a pipe and sits on the floor.

But enough! Do you catch this thing? Do you see that all the pagan and Christian gods and the mystery and beauty and joy of life are bubbling up here in a human spring? And like the pool in the garden, nature loves it; and children are so a part of nature that they would come in flocks if there were room and time.

My idea in describing this teacher is to make one thing plain: that something of this point of view, something of the elf, of the gnome, of the kinsman with creatures, of the intense lover of the music and poise and presence of things that men make and that men do, of books and art and people, must be in a teacher of children. Because this is the air children’s souls breathe, and the bread their minds live on. And if happiness is worth anything in this world,—and we assume that it is worth everything, — then this color must be a part of the composition.

And everything else can be added to it — only seek first this Kingdom of God. And the things that are added are those fine adjustments between brain and hand — the power to visualize clearly the job, to begin at the beginning, and move forward toward completion by sure and accurate steps, even through very intricate places.

To do it right the first time! To do it as if you had done it many times before; having done it perfectly in your mind, there come in all those invaluable qualities that books never stimulate. For by way of the hand the mind still travels the enticing road to self-expression and self-fulfillment and to that most priceless sort of happiness which is poised upon itself.

If you say, ‘How fanciful this all is: there are not enough teachers such as you describe to answer for a single city school system — and a small city at that,’ the answer must be that it is necessary to discover such teachers; and the managers of normal schools and teachers’ colleges should make it their particular business to select the fit from the mass and return the unfit with great care to a life involving less disaster to themselves and others. Also, and again, teachers should be taken where found.

And, finally, education must develop the appreciation of our common possessions. Then we should not be so insanely interested in building greater and greater barns, thereby exciting the envy of our equally greedy neighbors.

There has been but one entirely adequate characterization of the man whose genius was to lay up much goods for many days, namely, ‘Thou fool!’ Children are the opposite from this. The light that is in them is not darkness. They are naturally heliotropic, but they are fearfully misled. They are given compasses which point every way, and the compass they are entitled to points one way only, namely, to Beauty. For underneath Beauty is moral order, and moral order is the one thing indispensable.