Today, let's work with our hands. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Headline in the June 21, 2000
New York Times: Schools Turning [Away]
From Teaching the Trades. New York has long
operated vocational high schools. Such schools were
fairly common when I was young. But, more than
that, vocational training was a part of any high
school. You could take drafting, home economics,
wood shop, maybe even metal shop, typing, print
shop, and more.
Those courses have waned in regular high schools.
They're the province of vocational schools whose
students don't expect to go to college.
College-bound students no longer expect to hone
manual skills. And that has created a crisis in New
No one doubts the value of vocational high schools.
But who's left to teach in them? In the past eight
years, attendance in those schools has dropped less
than seven percent. During that same time, New York
has lost sixty percent of its welding instructors,
eighty-three percent of its refrigeration/air
conditioning teachers, almost ninety percent of its
woodworking instructors, and nobody at all is left
to teach machine shop.
The logic of that is painfully obvious. High
schools, including vocational schools, want
college-educated teachers. But vocational high
schools no longer expect to feed students into
college. The simple consequence is that few
graduates of any college of education are qualified
to teach vocational material.
This is only a symptom of a greater problem. I
don't believe that anyone who has never handled
tools can call himself or herself educated. Our
culture rests upon manufactured things -- beds,
chairs, TVs, cars, thermostats, window panes --
books. The idea that we can serve our
society, that we can vote, that we can expand our
culture without such elemental knowledge is wrong.
For one thing, we wind up talking about things we
don't understand. But we also lose a basic
dimension of abstract thinking.
To make solid three-dimensional things we have to
expand our vision into three dimensions. I can't
make a table leg, a radio, or a working drawing of
a real object without venturing into an abstract
mental world. That world necessarily stays hidden
as long as I gaze only at two-dimensional paper or
We've come to this pass in our educational system
through simplistic straight-line thinking. Leaders
are people who know literature and economics;
leaders don't operate lathes. Therefore, to produce
leaders, forget lathes and drill presses. Forget
We need to remember that Thomas Jefferson loved to work
with his hands. He was a fine draftsman. Ben Franklin constantly designed
and built things. Jimmy Carter and Barry Goldwater both spent their
lives working with their hands. George Washington
worked as a surveyor. The young Teddy Roosevelt worked as a
rancher. Herbert Hoover
was once America's leading mining engineer.
We need to remember that manual skills really have
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds