the Boston Compromise…
The dire warning of Spanish born philosopher George Santayana is often quoted: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. But the pendulum is not always swinging in the wrong direction, and some things are worthy of repetition rather than avoidance. For example, many of us are hoping for a restoration of manual arts in our nation’s schools. Some folks now understand how rash it was to abandon school wood shops, and as a positive sign some new and old programs are occasionally being featured in the news. Perhaps there’s reason to hope that the tide has begun to turn and that what had been nearly forgotten in American education is ready now for repetition. At the 1876 Philadelphia Exhibition, both the Russian System of Victor Della Vos, and Otto Salomon’s Educational Sloyd were introduced to the public. Those two rival methods of manual arts wrestled with each other for dominance at MIT, within the North Bennet St. School and in the public schools of Boston until what had been called “the Boston Compromise” was reached incorporating aspects of both systems.
According to Charles A. Bennett who wrote the exhaustive two-volume History of Manual and Industrial Arts Education, the Boston compromise became the model upon which programs throughout the US were based. And once again things are happening in Boston that could have an important effect on American education. A possible renewal of manual arts training should be a matter of interest for every craftsman working in wood and if history can repeat itself, Boston has the history to get on with it.
As was the case in the 1870s and early 1880s, North Bennet St. School in Boston is at the center of the debate about the value of manual arts in schools. They are expanding their woodworking with youth program to more public schools. Part of the challenge is that what teachers observe of student enthusiasm and interest in schooling is no longer considered relevant to administrators or even parents in comparison to standardized tests and their stranglehold on learning.
No one in the 1880’s seemed to question the value of manual training in schools. The US was poised at the edge of enormous industrial growth. The need to train students to serve intelligently in agriculture and industry was a given. But the development of hand-skills was also known to have other benefits as well. Educator Otto Salomon, founder of the Sloyd School at Nääs, Sweden, whose method was introduced to the US by Gustaf Larsson at North Bennet St. School described manual arts as having two distinct purposes, one economic and the other “formative.” It was obvious that manual arts training would make students more skillful contributors to the economic needs of their communities, and that is one of the arguments made today. The less obvious contribution of manual arts that Educational Sloyd proposed was in the development of character, including a sense of shared responsibility and connectedness that brought greater meaning to families, communities and ultimately to our nation.
Sir James Chrichton Browne, writing at that time observed that “certain portions of the brain are developed between the ages of four and fourteen years by manual exercises alone” and “It is plain that the highest functional activity of these motor centers is a thing to be aimed at with a view to general mental power as well as with a view to muscular expertness; and as the hand centers hold a prominent place among the motor centers, and are in relation with an organ which in prehension, in touch, and in a thousand different combinations of movement, adds enormously to our intellectual resources, thoughts, and sentiments, it is plain that the highest possible functional activity of these hand centers is of paramount importance not less to mental grasp than to industrial success… Depend upon it that much of the confusion of thought, awkwardness, bashfulness, stutterings, stupidity, and irresolution which we encounter in the world, and even in highly educated men and women, is dependent on defective or misdirected muscular training, and that the thoughtful and diligent cultivation of this is conducive to breadth of mind as well as to breadth of shoulders.”
I will present an evening lecture and discussion in Boston on July 6, 7 PM co-sponsored by Eliot School,and North Bennet St. School to discuss the importance of manual arts (particularly woodworking) in schools, and to discuss how woodworkers can be of particular use in digging our way out of the educational morass that plagues our nation and our children. Perhaps a few readers of Fine Woodworking will be interested to attend. Few of the army of reformers of modern education are talking yet about the hands and the effects of skilled craftsmanship but woodworkers already know the close relationship between the hands and the development intelligence and character. We may be the best qualified to explain some very important points that are enumerated in 21 Reasons for for School Woodshops, a paper Jack Grube, a few others and I produced for the New England Association of Woodshop Teachers
Just in case you cannot attend, I will be discussing the same points over the next three weeks (as I always do) in my blog, Wisdom of the Hands. There are also some things we can do besides talking about woodworking with kids. While children and grandchildren have summers off, get them busy with you in your wood shop. You and they will have a wonderful time that will mean more to them than you could ever know.