William James and the Hand Crafted Frame of Youth

“It is by having hands that man is the most intelligent of animals,” according to the ancient Greek Anaxagoras. It follows that handcraft is indispensable to the education of our children—and that in a debased society education should lose its basis in hand craft. On these matters, one good person to follow is Doug Stowe who blogs at Wisdom of the Hands.  Yesterday’s post, “The Habit of Constructiveness,” included a quote from William James that frames the matter eloquently, and speaks not only to the crucial role of handcraft in education but to the fundamental framework we provide our children when we teach them to make things—or when we fail to do so. In 1899, in his Talks with Teachers on Psychology, James said,

220px-William_James_b1842cDuring the first seven or eight years of childhood the mind is most interested in the sensible properties of material things. Constructiveness is the instinct most active; and by the incessant hammering and sawing, and dressing and undressing dolls, putting of things together and taking them apart, the child not only trains the muscles to co-ordinate action, but accumulates a store of physical conceptions which are the basis of his knowledge of the material world through life. Object-teaching and manual training wisely extend the sphere of this order of acquisition. Clay, wood, metals, and the various kinds of tools are made to contribute to the store. A youth brought up with a sufficiently broad basis of this kind is always at home in the world. He stands within the pale. He is acquainted with Nature, and Nature in a certain sense is acquainted with him. Whereas the youth brought up alone at home, with no acquaintance with anything but the printed page, is always afflicted with a certain remoteness from the material facts of life, and a correlative insecurity of consciousness which make of him a kind of alien on the earth in which he ought to feel himself perfectly at home.

To frame our children’s lives “within the pale…acquainted with nature” rather than in the abstract realm of the printed page, “afflicted with a certain remoteness from the material facts of life,” is to secure them a life engaged with the earth itself—the greatest frame of life.

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