No Industrial Arts, No Industry

I was reading an article from The American Thresherman (December, 1907) Every boy ought to know how to drive a nail and saw a board,  okay, I wasn’t reading the article in the journal, I was reading a copy of it on Lost Art Press’s blog and a few thoughts came up at several levels that I felt compelled to share.

shop classOn the surface, there is the gender point. I firmly believe that this article is very relevant to today’s youth and this absolutely includes girls as well as boys. When I was in Jr. High shop class I don’t recall seeing more than one girl in any shop class, if any at all, and I always thought it was odd. I knew many girls who would have liked, and excelled in the different shop classes. I do recall being informed later, and on more than one occasion, by female friends that they would have taken shop classes but were ether told they couldn’t, or where strongly discouraged to by school staff. I believe unequivocally that girls should be in shop classes of all kinds if they want to be there, and they should be encouraged at an early age to pursue whatever interests them. I may be a cranky old fart, but gender bias in education is just ignorant.

In Jr. High I took a different shop class every semester. Wood Shop, Mechanical Drawing, Plastic and Metal Fabrication, and Wood Shop II, and in High School I took of Auto Shop. I learned a lot from those classes and not just the basics of manipulating tools and materials. They taught me the importance of method and procedure, analytical skills, situational awareness, and of course tool use; by tool use I am not just talking about how to swing a hammer, I am talking about finding the right tool for the job, making the right tool if you don’t have it, and understanding how using the right tool affects outcomes. These are life skills not just shop skills.

Industrial Arts, as it was known before its virtual disappearance from primary public education, was one of those rare PC, aggrandizing terms that was actually well chosen. As school budgets decrease and programs are cut there are outcries of “save the arts,” and there should be, the arts are a very important part of development. Each student benefits from some form of the arts in their own way developmentally. Many studies have been done exclaiming the benefits of art programs; visual arts, musical arts, theatrical arts… but what about Industrial Arts, the same benefits come from taking Industrial Arts classes.

Shop class has often been the butt of jokes and used as a derogatory reference much like jock by the academically adept. Sadly, “Shop Guy” didn’t get the alternative peer respect that jock did, even though historically, and somewhat ironically, jocks often relied on shop classes to keep afloat as far as grades were concerned. Now we are in the Information Age, the Poindexter’s are calling the shots. For the record I was both a shop guy and a psudo-poindexter, I was in chess club, the Domino Club, the D&D club, and an AV guy, I just didn’t have the 4.0 GPA. 

So what happened to Shop Guy/Gal after the programs shut down? In short, they didn’t seem to get much of a chance to learn those skills, or discover that’s what they are good at, or who they are. There is something out there for Shop Guy/Gal, but they will be hard pressed to find it in traditional channels before college and even then it is very limited.

Industrial Education or Career Technical/Technology Education (CTE) as it is known in community college circles, is very limited and focuses mostly on nursing and cosmetology with few resources for other shop-type programs. Most community colleges have only one shop-type program and it is usually tied to a certificate program. Examples would be Automotive Repair, Welding, Machine Tool Operator or CNC Machine Operator, and Aviation Maintenance Technology.  These are, as the department title indicates, Career Technology types of programs so they are not particularly useful for the average person unless they are planning on that specific career path. So in reality these are not shop classes in the primary education sense and that’s what I’m focusing on here.

I can’t think of one local community college that offers anything comparable to the shop classes found in primary education only a few decades ago. This decline of shop classes occurred rapidly beginning in the late 80s with the introduction of personal computers and by the early 2000s shop class was pretty much a goner, technology had overrun Industrial Arts. As shop classes went away other things happened as well. Those kids who relied on shop class for a grade, they didn’t have a resource or outlet anymore and many dropped out. Those entering school after shop class was gone, they never had the opportunity or resource to learn the skills a shop class would have provided, skills that are practical, transferable, and social. Technology took over the job-skills classes and programs and if you weren’t interested in computer science or up to the challenge, there really wasn’t much else for you.

There are no studies that I am aware of that show a direct correlation between the demise of shop class and an increase in crime or dropout rates but I believe there is some connection. Certainly the loss of shop classes is not responsible for all of society’s ills, but like other arts, there are important skills that are being lost to our society as a whole. In just one or two generations those once common basic tool-use skills have declined dramatically. Ask the average teen today how to use a basic hand tool and you get an odd look, ask them how to use a shop tool and, well, they just look puzzled because they have no idea what language you are speaking or what the object is you are pointing at.

At present the DIY and Maker movements are where basic tool-use skills are being acquired. YouTube contributes more to basic tool-use education than all traditional education institutions at all levels combined. While this is great from the perspective of keeping these skills alive, there is little if any feedback on how well those skills are being understood and applied. Without feedback it becomes difficult to develop skills further, errors begin to compound, and at some level the wheel keeps getting re-invented, frequently. Mr. Stumpy the three fingered shop teacher may not have been the most congenial guy in the world, but he did know the importance of the guide bar on a band saw and its proper adjustment, from personal experience no less, and he would most definitely give you feedback.

I am all for keeping music programs, art classes, and theater programs I just think industrial arts, and more importantly the individuals likely to have been in shop class as well as society as a whole have been short changed by the loss of Industrial Arts programs in primary education. If we as a nation want to reclaim some of our manufacturing prowess, restore “Made In USA” to its former status around the world, and improve our import/export ratio, we better start thinking about how the next generation is going to learn  basic tool use and those important underlying lessons shop class can provide.

Yes, education with strong math and science skills is very important for the nation to remain competitive in the world market as a whole, but let’s face it folks, not every kid is suited for a job in science or technology. The system is trying to push every kid down that road with “no child left behind” even if that is not where he/she is best suited. We can’t all be Rhodes Scholars, and that’s fine. It wouldn’t mean much if we all where now would it? Everyone can benefit from shop skills, not everyone has that shop-gene. Some people are good at shop, some aren’t. Some are good at science, some aren’t. Let people be good at what they are good at. Give them the chance to find what they are good at. That’s what High School is supposed to be about, finding something you are good at or at least interested in. If not in High School, then Community College. Industrial Arts needs to reemerge from the darkness in early education for everyone’s benefit. By Industrial Arts I’m talking about basic shop-skills classes, general tool-user classes, not career specific classes, the kind of class that has deeper life lessons.

To those who don’t know me personally, even to some who do, this may come as a shock, but I didn’t take a single math class in High School. The highest level math I had in primary schooling was in Jr. High and in shop class. It was relevant and had a purpose. Over the course of my life I have had to add to my math knowledge as I acquired new skill sets that relied on mathematical operations or concepts I wasn’t familiar with, I had to learn them on my own. Fortunately I have not had issues understanding math in practical applications. In fact, I understand the mathematical relationships in many areas very well. I credit the basics I learned in shop class along with the shop skill of seeking out the right tool for the job. I would not be who I am today without the benefits of having taken shop classes; not just having the tool-user skills, but deep down who I am.

Please forgive a little sappy self-reflection here, but I think this is important, at least it is to me. This post has become something more reflective than I expected.

It is said that we develop our basic personal identity early in our formative years. For me, I can trace a vast majority of who I am today, what is relevant to me as the person I am now, the beliefs I hold, and the major aspects of my character, to three associations outside of my family. First and second were tied closely together, the church I grew up in, and scouting. The third, and I mean this in all honesty was shop class; not the class itself but the deeper level of things I learned in shop. Church and scouts gave me the “moral compass” to guide me. Scouts and shop gave me an ethical, practical, and physical sense of the world and how to approach it, to function in it.

I don’t expect that others will feel as strongly as I do about the importance of Industrial Arts education, but I sincerely hope that if you benefitted from shop class, any shop class, and you have tool-user skills at any level, pass those skills on.

If you are a parent, mentor, or teacher encourage your charges to explore shop-type skills when they show an interest in them.

If by chance, you are involved in curriculum development or program development for primary education or community college education, think about the case for providing basic Industrial Arts programs and help bringing them back to public education. Everyone benefits from basic tool-use skills and more importantly the deeper level of skills that can come from shop class.