In my junior high school, woodshop classes were overseen by Mr. Witt. Mr. Witt was a large and somewhat dour man, seemingly with a slightly short temper. On the other hand, Mr. Witt had to ride herd on a couple dozen barely adolescent males (mostly males, anyway) who had free run in a large room full of things with sharp edges and large motors, so the onus was upon Mr. Witt to impose some degree of discipline on us. Mr. Witt also turned out to be quite jovial if you happened to show an unusual interest in some project or process related to his classes, after summoning the nerve to approach him directly to broach the subject.
Woodshop was wonderful; I took three trimesters of it, if memory served. I already had a fairly good command of hand tools by the time I reached junior high school, thanks to my father introducing me to such things at an early age, but Woodshop introduced me to the wonders of such things as scroll saws, band saws, drill presses, and power sanders. (I also met my best friend Brian, whom I’m still in touch with. Hi, Brian.) I was a shy kid and something of a social outcast, but in Woodshop I was in my element, and I thrived.
Mr. Witt also taught Electricity, another shop class that was conducted (no pun intended) in the same room. In Electricity, we learned how to solder (or rather, everyone else learned how to solder–I’d been soldering since early grade school, again thanks to my father’s early tutelage) and built simple things like circuit testers and night lights. All of these projects involved hot solder and live AC, and were in their way almost as dangerous as the woodworking tools, and yet to my recollection nobody was ever injured. Mr. Witt taught us about safety first: don’t put your fingers in line with the band saw blade, don’t stand where the band saw blade could skewer you in the highly unlikely event that it breaks while running, don’t even approach the band saw without Mr. Witt’s supervision until Mr. Witt has granted you the privilege to do so based on your demonstrated competence, don’t leave the chuck key in the drill press, don’t flick extra solder off your iron tip, always wear your safety glasses, and so on. These are lessons I retain to this day.
It occurred to me not long ago that Mr. Witt has probably departed this mortal coil by now. He was up there in his years at the time, and that time was many years ago. I’ve wondered whether Mr. Witt’s classes also ceased when Mr. Witt retired, or some time thereafter. As I’ve reflected here in the past, we as a culture seem to have made the rather drastic mistake of deciding to cease teaching our children useful skills for fear that they might injure themselves in the process. I’ve surmised that that wonderful big room full of benches and stools and cabinets of tools and big machines that can be used to make whatever you can imagine was closed and then later dismantled, and that thought makes me very sad.
Hence it didn’t come as much of a surprise to me when I ran across this article recently, in which it’s stated that Woodshop is largely a thing of the past. But the article also contains a glimmer of hope: many people have come to recognize that children actually learn more efficiently if they can get their hands on something. Working with tools and wood seems to have benefits beyond the obvious acquisition of the immediate skills involved (as if that isn’t reason enough). Somehow it seems sad that it requires studies and papers and so forth to make this point, but I guess it’s necessary to make this point with people who never took Woodshop and hence don’t have an inherent appreciation of its value. It’s a somewhat lengthy article but it’s a good read if you’re interested in education–or if, like me, you just happen to have fond memories of Woodshop and someone like Mr. Witt.