College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Lost Power Tools in Education: Trade Classes

By Jennifer Martin — May 14, 2013 2 min read
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Jennifer Martin

In the late 1970s when I was in high school, I shared classes with some boys whose fingernails were blackened by axle grease and whose futures, while potentially bright, did not generally include college plans. My school, like many of that time, had a whole wing devoted to educating students for such hands-on work as carpentry, sewing, cosmetology, cooking, and mechanics.

When I began teaching in 2002, the retractable electrical cords for power tools still hung from the ceiling of my middle school classroom. But the tools had been “surplussed,” and the shop instructor was now teaching health class. Today these classes have been eliminated in all but one county high school, which specializes in trades education. I sometimes wonder if shop classes went away because of the potential for costly litigation over injuries. Whatever the reason, it’s a shame!

In education today, there is much talk about educating the “whole child”, addressing social and emotional development as well as academic skills. But I like to think of whole-child education as Rudolph Steiner did: Teaching “head, heart, and hands.” We learn through and express ourselves with our bodies. Too often, we educators—and those who fund our work—fail to help children grow fully into their physical potential. We ignore the important causal link between the opposable thumb and human intelligence. We fail to recognize that touching the world makes us smarter.

Moreover, we’ve developed the misguided notion that the less we use our hands—on anything other than a keyboard—the more important and valuable we are. But in Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew B. Crawford accurately depicts the soul-killing tedium of pushing paper in the white-collar world and the joy that can result from manual labor.

In my high school today, I have students for whom college will be a poor fit, sometimes because of aptitude but often because of inclination. Others are well-suited to go to college, but they may find more joy in running electrical wire than in writing a legal brief. Rather than wedging all students into a future bound by the walls of an office cubicle, schools should give kids the manual skills that could free them to choose another path.

When I went to my 30th high school reunion a few years ago, I ran into several of those boys who’d had blackened fingernails. One of them had become a contractor, another ran a plumbing company, and a third owned a firm specializing in audio-visual systems. None had gone to college, but all were happy and prosperous. High school had given them what they needed. We should give this generation the same opportunities.

Jennifer Martin, an English teacher at Wootton High School in Rockville, Md., has taught nearly every grade of middle and high school at every skill level, from special education inclusion to advanced placement.

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