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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Bring back shop class

By Marc Epstein

Marc Epstein is 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.

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.

Taken from the Washington Post:

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