Weather-Ready Nation, Wood Shop, and Home Economics.

woodshop 1950

Really, Bill?

Bear with me. It’s the weekend.

In the later years of grade school in New Jersey and then in what was called junior high in Pennsylvania, I was introduced to wood shop. Today’s generation needs to understand that back then (the 1950’s) woodworking and home economics were considered essential life skills. It was assumed that if you were male you would be confronted throughout your life with renovations and repairs at home that would require a facility with woodworking tools, a practical knowledge of different woods and their uses, and how to finish woods depending upon their utilitarian use or aesthetic purpose. If you were female you were expected to know how prepare and cook wholesome meals, and repair and even make clothing from scratch. These courses taught you stuff you needed to know.

There was another underlying reality. Kids eagerly anticipated these courses. They provided a welcome relief from the relatively dry academic subjects that made up the bulk of the school day. They marked a rite of passage in school, every bit as much as graduation itself. What’s more, kids showed up in these classes already knowing the subject matter. Home values and school learning were congruent. Moms had been teaching their daughters from the time they were toddlers how to select and cut fabric, how to work from patterns, how to do fine, decorative stitching of every sort, and more. They took their daughters grocery shopping, taught them to bake, fry, broil, and boil, how to make beds, vacuum, clean, set a table and so on. Dads had already been showing their sons how to saw, hammer, plane, file, nail, screw, and bolt. They maybe threw in a little electrical and plumbing instruction. The kids built their birdhouses and doghouses, and knew what it meant to have a home shop and maintain it.

Unless like me you were the son of a statistician. In this latter case you didn’t know a lick about woodworking or home repair, but you did know how to calculate probabilities. You could, for example, even in seventh grade, calculate your chances of getting through a semester of wood shop without humiliation.

It was zero.

A forecast that verified. The other kids showed up in these woodworking classes and – in junior high!! – churned out works of art that would rival George Nakashima. Multi-wood salad bowls and cutting boards. Cabinets. Gun racks. Even then they had leisure time to mock me while I took an entire semester to bevel and chamfer and varnish a small block of wood to make the base for a telegraph key.

(But that’s another story – or a raft of them, actually. Ninth-grade metal shop would prove even worse. There’s also a story here about sexism underlying the options of wood shop and home economics, but that too is for another place and another day. Remember, this was the 1950’s.)

Okay, Bill. We feel your pain. Maybe. Sort of. Nah, Bill, not really. But back to the subject: what on earth does this have to do with a Weather-Ready Nation?

Just this. Ask yourself. In today’s world of apartment living and buying furniture off the shelf instead of building it, buying clothes off the rack instead of sewing them, buying prepared meals at the supermarket instead of cooking, woodworking and home economics no longer matter so much. But today, what constitutes a life skill that 21st-century Americans all need to know and master?

It’s right in front of us. Management of information.

The operative word is management. Most kids arrive in school each day with plenty of access to information (we’ll come back to this point later). They have smartphones, maybe an iPad in their backpacks. They have laptops, gaming devices, and much more IT at home. They’re IT-facile; they’re generating and sharing information rapidly and widely across social media.

But they’re not necessarily managing their information; too often it’s managing them. They’re chasing what’s momentarily cool or what happen to catch their eye as they were surfing or trolling the internet. They’re IT-quick, and IT-accomplished, but not IT-strategic. Video games consume massive stretches of time. There’s little evidence of triage – distinguishing what’s truly important and needs to be dealt with immediately, from what’s important but long-term, from what’s trivial and maybe even hurtful.

In other words, they’re not much different from adults. Study after study of the workplace suggests that IT is as much of a distraction as a tool.

The apps and the software for kids (and adults) to do life are all there, or will be soon. New options are growing by leaps and bounds. But going back to our woodshop narrative, anyone can take a plane to a block of pine and reduce it to a pile of shavings. It takes something more to craft a cabinet. We face similar challenges every day in the office, and kids face the same questions as they begin to make their way in the world. How to harness the world’s information to make a living, take care of our personal health, make good use of our time, balance our budgets, meet our civic responsibilities, and more?

Suppose, by contrast, given our growing dependence on IT, each and every schoolchild were engaged throughout his/her studies with periodic, systematic attention to management of information through all devices.

Including how he/she wants to receive warnings of severe weather and other hazards.

On what platforms? In what languages? With what blend of graphics and text? What overlay of uncertainty information and probabilities? What identification of options for sheltering in place, sheltering nearby, evacuating, and other actions? School could provide a forum where kids would think through these issues collectively, becoming accustomed to periodically revisiting and refreshing their approaches to receipt and use of IT, and harnessing that use to live their values and achieve their goals and dreams. Public safety agencies wouldn’t have to guess what works. Social scientists could study what choices were being made and why with far richer data than they enjoy today.

By the way, returning to that point most kids enjoy access to IT? That access isn’t universal. Access is greater for the well-to-do, living in urban areas; relatively lacking for the poor and those in rural areas. Redressing this imbalance is a major challenge. So too is ensuring that the ways children access IT and the mindset with which they approach IT in schools is congruent with they way they access and approach IT at home. That wasn’t a problem when it came to wood shop and home economics in 20th-century America.

More in the next post.


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