This is a photograph of a portion of my classroom, which I’ve included for a purpose. Notice the bookshelves and the cabinet upon which my television rests? I built them all. I don’t mention them to pat myself on the back, but to show my students what’s possible, that there is a bigger world out there, a wonderful world of accomplishment and tactile pleasure. Teachers will understand.
School districts might provide a single small bookshelf, possibly even a rolling, skeletal TV stand, but enough bookshelves to essentially surround a classroom, made of real wood rather than cheap particle board and built to last? Preposterous!
Every day I watch the custodians in my large building. Hard working and underpaid all, they, perhaps more than most, are a link to an American past arguably more virtuous and noble than the present. I speak of a past when most Americans actually worked with their hands, when their work produced goods and services useful to others, when their energy and dedication built a nation.
I worry that we are losing that energy and dedication, or perhaps, it has already been lost. Despite the fact there is great nobility in honest work, is America on the way to becoming a nation of consumers rather than producers? Takers instead of makers? Or are we already there? What part do our schools play in retaining the best of traditional values, and what part do they play in obliterating them?
Mr. Obama wants everyone to go to college on the public dime, yet college costs continue to rise to impossible levels, levels they actually reached years ago. The federalizing of the college loan industry has not been helpful. Simultaneously, there is no longer any doubt that a college degree in most disciplines is no guarantee of anything other than decades—perhaps a lifetime–of college loan debt. Not only is college not for most people, it now seems destructive to many who attempt it, only to drop out, or to, after six or seven years on campus, graduate without the ability to truly produce anything.
In many ways, it’s not surprising. So many of the products we make have unprecedented levels of reliability and longevity, while simultaneously being too complex to allow user repairs and maintenance. Many are purposely designed that way. Few have the computer diagnostic equipment necessary to repair modern cars, and fewer still the equipment necessary to deal with an iPhone or similar electronics. Much of what we buy is designed for obsolescence.
Still, at the least, the need for basic repair abilities persists. Simply maintaining an apartment or home requires some tools and the ability to use them efficiently.
There is little doubt we take the conveniences of modern life for granted. Running water, electricity, indoor plumbing, the luxury of hot showers whenever we please, prepackaged, refrigerated foods, all of these things are valuable, yet surprisingly fragile. Occasionally, an electric power outage of a few days provides a brief glimpse of our utter dependence on electricity. It gives us sobering hints of how difficult life could suddenly become. It should also warn us how utterly unprepared many are to deal with a life where repairing durable goods is not only possible, but an absolute necessity, even a matter of mere survival.
Americans tend to take all of this for granted because we have enjoyed such leisure for so long. My 15-year-old students were born into a world of computers, iPods, satellite television and innumerable other conveniences unimaginable only a decade ago. They can scarcely imagine living without a cell phone and consider themselves to be virtually pre-industrial without one. Yet even in the industrialized world, hundreds of millions are not so fortunate. A good friend and colleague spent several years teaching in Japan in the 1990s, and she returned with a renewed appreciation of America, for substantial portions of that nation lacked indoor toilets and innumerable other ubiquitous American conveniences.
Why am I speaking of this in an education column? Because the ability to repair–to build–should be an integral part of the education of every American, but not only for the reasons one might imagine. The value of such abilities lies not only in their practical application, but in the mental processes involved, in helping to build bigger, better brains, which is truly what teachers do.
I speak not only of the traditional crafts of each gender. A man unable to sew is as handicapped as a woman unable to efficiently manipulate a saw. There is no doubt that each gender tends to have—simply because the brains and bodies of men and woman are different in significant ways—different interests and competencies, but a broken chair or a torn pair of pants know no discrimination.
Another important lesson such things teach is something severely lacking in so much of American society: attention to detail. I suspect that you, like me, find yourself annoyed by salespeople who don’t know their merchandise, or repairmen who omit important details. More and more it seems that people can’t be bothered to really take the time to examine a task to ensure that it is done completely correctly the first time. Expecting anyone to go beyond that minimal standard is virtually unimaginable, and a welcome and shocking surprise when it occurs.
Let’s take the simple act of building one of the bookshelves depicted in the photograph and see what’s involved. They’re about four feet wide and about 42″ tall and about 11.25″ deep and made of ¾” white wood (fir or pine) and ¼” Masonite as a backing. They’re painted with three coats of polyurethane and held together with Elmer’s woodworking glue and drywall screws.
The process begins when one realizes that the bookshelves generally commercially available for anything approaching an affordable price are virtually all made of particle board, and usually less than ¾” thick. One needs to learn through experience that particle board lacks structural rigidity and is quite brittle and fragile. The thin vinyl covering usually employed tends to tear easily and does not adhere well to the particle board. In addition, particle board doesn’t hold fasteners—even screws well—and most such shelves are assembled as cheaply as possible, often with minimal, sloppily applied glue—sometimes none—and usually employing air-driven staples that hold less well than screws. When any Masonite backing at all is applied, it is attached with the same inadequate methods, is usually no thicker than 1/8″ and usually does not cover the entire back of the shelf unit.
Experience quickly teaches that these bookshelves cost more than the shelves one can build with materials that will last a lifetime, and they quickly look terrible. Their service life is very short, usually only a few years, and they seldom come in sizes one really needs.
Planning is the second step. One needs to develop the ability to see the bookshelf they need, to understand their needs and to translate that understanding into at least rudimentary plans. One needs to know or learn what kind of materials, fasteners and tools are available at reasonable prices and where they can be found. One must determine the amount of those materials and fasteners that must be purchased and must have the necessary tools on hand. The necessary skills are the foundation of attention to detail, which translates into every facet of one’s life.
The next step is fashioning all of the necessary parts, which requires the ability not only to use a variety of tools such as table or radial arm saws and dado blades (though it can be done with only hand tools), but drills and a variety of other hand tools. Important and integral parts of this process are the abilities to measure and cut accurately. The neural connections made and exercised by only these skills are considerable and directly translate to other activities and abilities.
Assembling the parts requires developing the ability to envision and complete step-by-step processes, an immeasurably valuable skill. Even learning to square a bookshelf builds an understanding of perspective, dynamic tensioning, geometry, spatial awareness and other higher-level skills and abilities. Understanding that it is the Masonite sheet of the proper thickness, covering and glued and fixed to every board, that actually provides structural rigidity is an important and transferrable insight.
It is the finishing phases that really help to fix the most valuable lessons of attention to detail in the mind. Rough, and finally finish, sanding require minute attention to detail, as does the process of applying multiple coats of polyurethane and wet sanding them to a fine finish.
The finished product teaches another valuable lesson: patience. Assembling the unit is quick, but it takes days to sand and to apply each coat, sanding between applications. Ultimately the bookshelf is substantially less expensive and infinitely more useful and lasting than virtually anything one can buy unless they’re willing to pay outlandish prices. But for all of that, the greatest benefit is all of the neural connections made, all of the lessons learned and internalized, the new abilities gained and the pride and self-confidence that cannot be obtained in any other way.
And so I continue to watch the custodians in my building. They’re primarily women, primarily younger Hispanic women, hard working and efficient. They understand attention to detail and are better people for it, so I do my best to be helpful and friendly. They’re my kind of people.
And I watch my students. They’re my kind of people too, but even in my semi-rural school, too many spend most of their time manipulating video game controllers rather than using tools, rather than actually fixing and making things. They need those experiences and abilities. Society needs them—far more than most realize.