Shop Class is Good for the Soul

My husband was just complaining the other day that he was too sullen a teenager to pay attention on all those Saturday afternoons his Dad made him spend working on home improvement projects. His father could do everything from stained glass windows to major construction projects. He even designed the lovely and unique house my husband grew up in. Now that my husband’s an adult, he’s quite handy around the house, but he constantly gripes that his car repair and home improvement skills are comparatively limited — and wants better for our kids in that department.

Well, our own kids are young enough that wielding power tools is still a few years off, but I was heartened to see this New York Times article about the resurgence of shop classes being offered. (It’s worth clicking on the link just for the picture of the charming 11-year-old girl putting a saw into a miter box.) Interestingly enough, the article attributes the new interest in these classes to the burgeoning interest in artisanal crafts among bohemian yuppies. Apparently, hipsters are good for something:

“Just as legions of Americans in cities and suburbs have discovered the joys of working with their hands ”” building their own chicken coops or brewing artisanal vinegars ”” many are now encouraging their children to do the same, by giving them the opportunity to learn how to handle a hammer as well as they use an iPhone.

At the nonprofit Eliot School of Fine and Applied Arts in Boston, children from 4 to 17 are designing furniture and learning joinery techniques in woodworking classes and an off-site program taught at local elementary and middle schools.

The Randall Museum, in San Francisco, has had a children’s woodworking program for two decades, but in recent years it has doubled the number of its classes and added one for preschoolers.

The three-year-old Makeville Studio in Gowanus, Brooklyn, which bills itself as a ”hands-on lab for craft, building, art and invention,” added a workshop building last year so children as young as 6 can take classes.

Kids’ Carpentry, an ”after-school math enrichment program” that has quietly served Northern California for nearly 30 years, just opened a branch in Minnesota, has added a new program in Berkeley, Calif., and is preparing to bring its woodworking classes to six more cities in the Bay Area by the end of the year.”

As I noted the other day in my post about the lost art of handwriting, in the era of Playstations and Xboxes I’m a big fan of teaching kids actual real-world skills that combine both testing their physical and conceptual abilities. I think conjoining body and mind is essential for their education and well-being — an argument forcefully made in Matthew Crawford’s terrific new book Shop Class as Soul Craft. Of course, I also think that the dearth of vocational training in American schools is a major problem. A lot of mechanically inclined kids are lost in an educational system that upholds liberal arts degrees as some necessary goal. Contrary to popular belief, spending a few years racking up debt and reading Toni Morrison novels might very well be less fulfilling than learning how to change spark plugs or build a house.

In any event, I think every parent should think long and hard about what physical skills they can expose their kids to. Whether it’s woodworking or sewing, your kids will benefit. When they get older, they’ll probably thank you for it — just ask my husband.

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