What I Learned From Shop Class

I want to revisit a blog I wrote six years ago for this website. (Click here to read that article.) A key passage went as follows:

“Even though I was a klutz mechanically, the mandatory shop classes taught me to handle tools better than I could before then. Even more important, they gave me a lifelong respect for manual skills and the people who excel in them.”

Here, I’d like to elaborate on some of the valuable lessons I learned from those long-ago shop classes.

One of the most important lessons was safety. My shop instructors drilled into students the importance of safety goggles and concentration when working with power tools and machinery. (I remember one very warm spring day when I ignored my welding instructor’s advice to wear long sleeves. I came home that day with several painful burns on my arms and wrists from arc welding splatter. From that day on I learned to wear long sleeves to that class even on the hottest days.) Work-related injuries are too common in the skilled trades. The vast majority are caused by human error due to carelessness.

I also learned patience. I’m a naturally impatient person. I enjoy results more than the process of achieving them, but results don’t magically appear at the snap of my fingers. I remember my first wood shop project, creating a simple wooden tray. It required first laying out a design and then marking with ruler, protractor and pencil the pieces to be cut out of large boards, first rough cuts, then more intricately shaping them with tolerances down to 1/32” as best I recall. Then came gluing the pieces together and pressing them together overnight in a vice. Finally, applying lacquer to the finished product. It was about as simple a project as a craftsman could undertake, but it took several class sessions to get it right. It taught me that even more complex projects can be completed if you break them into steps. My tray had a few odd angles to it compared to most other classmates’, but I was proud of my work and that tray stayed in use in our household for years.

That example contains another lesson: pride in craftsmanship. There’s something almost spiritual about creating something useful out of shapeless raw materials. I no longer work very much with tools, but the same feeling comes over me when I write an article that people read and sometimes compliment.

One final thing I learned from shop class – maybe the most important lesson — was humility. I was always a smart kid academically but not as adept in shop class as my mechanically inclined classmates. That’s why I never lorded over the C students when I got A’s in English, history and math. In shop classes, I was the C student while they got A’s.

With that, I’ll finish with the same concluding paragraph I wrote in my blog six years ago.

“I do yearn for a time when vocational education was valued as much as a college degree, and when respect was mutual between people who earned their living working with tools and those who did so-called ‘brain work.’”

Vocational schools deserve as much respect as colleges.

“I think the idea of separate tracks for vocational and college careers is shortsighted. I would be in favor of shop classes in every high school, as it was in mine. It would help instill in the minds of highly educated people that there are different forms of worthwhile education, one not being better than the other.”