When thinking of the current state of woodworking we see a cultural rise in its popularity among baby boomers and retirees but a disinterest, or even fear of craftsmanship, among the younger generation. I am constantly amazed that a typical response to my craft goes along this line, “ Oh, you make things, how interesting. I don’t even know how to use a hammer… but I just got a new ipod app.” What I see is a profound distance between materials and culture. So many people accept modern life without exploring how the materials are created or even show an interest in living interesting lives. We are constantly telling our kids with our votes and money allocation that the arts in schools are the bottom of the priority list. On the surface this makes sense because the reality is that the life of the artist is one of struggle. Those who focus on math or business run less risk of losing a job to outsourcing and more chance of leading a financially stable life. And so what I’m actually hearing is not “How Interesting” but rather, “That takes balls. And you have a family to support?” So what is to be done to revitalize the craft trades?
I would design a new system for the arts in schools. Although it has been proven that the arts lead to better self-confidence and problem solving skills, for most the arts still remain a class period between biology and history. We need an art class that links with biology and history. We need teachers advocating (as I do in woodworking) that by studying a craft and honing a particular skill we inevitably learn about cultural history, and can learn about why the biology of dye pigments or the chemistry of ceramic glazes can lead to a better application of BOTH craft and science, etc. What I want is a conversation like this, “I remember taking shop class even though I became a lawyer. I remember having to do exacting scale drawings of the table before we built it so I could see every detail and the whole together. We had a homework assignment on systems theory. Not only did the table come out great, but I use those skills now when planning a case for trial.”
To start the design solution I would list the most common high school classes and then ask 1000 craftsmen to list skills they use in their lives as makers that they learned from those other classes. From there we need to stop teaching art classes as art and more as design thinking with cross class integration using the best writings of the 1000 artists as the springboard for the integration. I remember myself saying in high school geometry, “When will I use this? My math will be about balancing my checkbook.” It turns out geometry is integral to woodworking, but no one ever related the practical application. It is time for art to reassert itself in the classroom.
High School subjects I use in woodworking but was never told I would:
- Geometry: Basic form. Rules for structural load.
- Chemistry: Molecular differences between aniline dyes and pigment stains. Finish treatments like bleaching, ammonia fuming, and wood burning.
- Physics: Structural loads, joint qualities, sharpening angles for tools and why they are that angle.
- Biology: Cellular makeup of wood and how to separate the strands. i.e. proper ways to cut wood both rip cut and crosscut. How different rake angles on saw blades remove wood fibers. How wood fibers absorb moisture.
- Economics: Too easy. How to live on Happy Hour food as an artist.
- American History: Influences of industrialization on the craft societies of early America.
- English: Translating thoughts about a piece unto words that a viewer can understand.