Hands-On?

There can be no doubt that the current stress on job training in the schools and colleges is simply the latest face of the anti-intellectualism that has always plagued this country — as noted in the 1830s by de Tocqueville and studied at great length in 1964 by Richard Hofstadter in his book Anti-Intellectualism and the American Life. Tocqueville, for example, noted that in America “the spirit of gain is always eager, and the human mind, constantly diverted from the pleasures of imagination and the labors of the intellect, is there swayed by no impulse but the pursuit of wealth.” But Americans didn’t simply turn their collective backs on things intellectual, they also have tended to belittle those who embraced the life of the mind — as Hofstadter showed in great detail.

One of the more insidious features of our anti-intellectualism is the claim that life in the classroom is “unreal.” The real world, it is said, is the workplace where we need to roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty. We hear people increasingly urging the schools to take the kids out of the classroom and give them “hands-on” experience. This, of course, is nonsense since the “real” world is the one we live in (unless we are demented) and this even includes the ivory tower. We tend to forget that adults need “down time” to reflect and try to figure out what went wrong. And kids need time to learn how to use their minds before we throw them into the turbid waters of the “real world.” We should admire and respect those few in this society who take that time to think before they act. And we should allow that thought and action when properly engaged in may well be two sides of the same coin. Our notions of the “pragmatic” and the “real” are stunted and lead necessarily to mistakes — like global warming or unburied nuclear waste.

A friend of mine has thought about this trend toward the “pragmatic,” the need to get “hands-on” experience in the “real world,” that seeks to take the students out of the classroom where they are supposed to learn to read, write, and figure  and puts them in the workplace where they learn to apprentice a locksmith or a bank manager. He realizes, as I do, how short-sighted this is and how narrow is the notion of “hands-on” that would exclude such things as reading, writing, and mathematics — which are not only necessary for success in a complex world, but are also necessary to succeed as a locksmith or a bank manager. They are also eminently practical. The tendency to see two things such as thought and action as mutually exclusive when, in fact, they are compatible and even mutually complementary is what logicians call “bifurcation.” It is an example of fallacious thinking. Learning to use one’s mind is decidedly practical, and it should not be regarded as something apart from action — certainly not less important.

As my friend says in a note to me,  People who chant “hands-on learning” really mean physical training. And except for very simple procedures, such training can not be divorced from its written guidelines. Can a mechanic reliably recall all tolerances and specifications for all the engines she repairs? No. Can a nurse remember all dose conversions between different measuring systems? Not likely. Can a professor of literature remember every word of all the literature he teaches?” I don’t think so.

Taking the child out of the classroom to give him or her “hands-on” experience implies that classroom time is wasted and that is patently false: it is essential to learning how to cope and how to succeed. We need to consider what it means to place the young among the trees where they will never see the forest while we also discourage them from reflecting on where they are, why they’re there, and where they need to go. “Hands-on” experience makes sense only when it is coupled with time for reflection and a tolerance for what has no immediate cash value. As I have said before, it is precisely the “useless” subjects that are most valuable in the long run. And the time spent in the classroom learning the rudiments of literature, history and mathematics have rewards that go beyond merely making a living.

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