How the hand defines the ‘self”
Frank Wilson

It looks like evolution expected us to be active pursuers of information, not to simply be sitting there quietly and having stuff stuffed into us. That’s overstating the case a little bit, but in general it seems to me that, based on my clinical experience, that it is not a stretch at all to say if the hand is really important to intelligence and to this sense of accomplishment that adult life is supposed to bring, then you ought to some evidence of a respect for that fact in what we offer to children as part of their education.

The second thing, and this is really derivative; the second thing is that it seems to me that the hand is really important as an object to think about in the developmental process, generally. And when I began to look at that question through let’s say the eyes and the experience and the research of people like Benjamin Bloom and the Montessorians and the Waldorf people and the Fribble kindergarten people, and on, and on, and on. It seemed to me that what they were saying was, what their experience was telling me was that this is really truth, that educators—people who are interested in the development of children, who pay attention to what kids to with their hands and who afford them opportunities to use their hands—get the kind of results that I would expect if it is really true that the hand and the brain are a system, and that they develop through life in a way that somehow or other yields this product of an autonomous, sentient, conscious thing that we call the “self.”

Now, if you think like that, or if you make inferences like that, you can’t look at this “crashed-and-burned” institution that we call education and not think well, maybe part of the problem is that the people who are the theorists in education have, like the cognitive psychologists that I just met, looked at the hand as if it were sort of an incidental [player] and not, in fact, a central player. The truth is that there is no way for you to actually address the brain directly. You can do it if you drill a hole in the head and drive an electrode in, but as a matter of practicality, despite what lots of people say is talking directly to the brain by doing the following thing. You’re not talking directly to the brain. The brain is part of a responsive organism that receives information in a certain way. It may do it actively; it may do it passively. It looks like evolution expected us to be active pursuers of information, not to simply be sitting there quietly and having stuff stuffed into us. That’s overstating the case a little bit, but in general it seems to me that, based on my clinical experience, that it is not a stretch at all to say if the hand is really important to intelligence and to this sense of accomplishment that adult life is supposed to bring, then you ought to some evidence of a respect for that fact in what we offer to children as part of their education.

When I met this guy, Nate Jones, after the book had been published, what is said was that he had begun to wonder what was wrong with the kids that were coming to him just to learn how to fix cars in a car shop. There is nothing fancy about that. This is just—this is Norman Rockwell Americana. Well, if it’s Americana, how come the kids coming to a guy like Nate are in-educable? Why does he say, “I can’t teach them how to do anything.” And, he asks himself, you know, is it in the water? Is there something? Or is it watching television? What is it? And he spoke with his wife and his daughter, both of whom are primary school teachers, and they offered the possible suggestion or explanation that maybe it was because kids don’t do anything with their hands in school. They are literally—they are just dissociated completely with the kind of stuff that I’ve been talking about. So, he took that and said well, you know, kids really need to be . . . I mean, I can see that. I did that when I was a kid. Incidentally, I’ve asked the same question at a meeting of computer scientists and engineers, who looked at me blankly when I said kids need this in the schools. They said, “No, they need courses in calculous.” Then I said, “Well, tell me a little bit about what you did when you were a kid.” One hundred percent of them were doing all the things that Nate is talking about. They grew up handling stiff, taking things apart, and they simply just do not credit that experience at all because they don’t look back. They forget what it was like to be there and to go through this long developmental process. We’re saying, wake up! You know, that wasn’t simply trivial. Woodshop, metal shop, drawing, none of that stuff was unimportant. In fact, that’s how you got to where you had to go.

We were just getting around to talking about Nate Jones. The realization that came to me was that if it was really true that hands and life go together, and that the experience of someone like Nate Jones, who is asking the question well, how come kids just simply can’t master these relatively simple skills? He then asks the question of himself maybe the fact that they haven’t had hand experience might have something to do with the fact that they simply can’t figure out how to take on these tasks. If you then look at the education system and you look at what’s happened over the last, I suppose, 15 years—people are always arguing about what’s wrong with the education system. That’s been going on for a very long time. Nevertheless, it’s clear that there is, with the exception of quite specific programs like Montessori and Waldorf and other kinds of sort of low-tech, if you will, low-tech educational strategies for kids, that we’re after something very different in terms of the yield of a formally organized education system. It is, apparently, the ability to pass tests.

Now we’ve got lots of people riled up because they are seeing that kids are disaffected from the educational system. Lots of kids drop out. There are criticisms of all kinds. More recently, there is a very, very interesting counter trend, which a guy like me is really very vulnerable to saying, “Ah-hah! I told you so,” without really knowing the details. That is that many of the admissions specialists in the so called “elite” colleges and universities in this country are taking very, very seriously the very different set of experiences that kids who’ve been home schooled and who have been brought up in alternative programs, the skills and potential that they seem to be bringing to college education. There is a paradox in this. It is that for the last ten years or so, people like Jane Healy and people like the Alliance for Childhood Health have been trying to wrestle with this case that is made that there is a digital divide: That kids who are deprived of the opportunity to learn with computers from an early age fall behind and never catch up in the education system.

Well, this sort or sudden perverse view of this problem that you get from talking to people who are admitting kids to college is that the digital divide actually works the opposite way, that the parents with lots of money, who are determined to get their kids into Harvard are spending money to keep them away from computers and to get them into home school programs, get them into—even if they are not particularly religious-minded, into Christian schools, where they have these other activities that are being given to them as an alternative to the wickedness of getting on the internet. For whatever reason, it seems that there is some validation coming very quickly that this wholesale investment in communications and electronic technology as a surrogate for real experience was a mistake. I am not unwilling to say that I think the educational world was sold a bill of goods when the suggestion was made that kids really need to be wired up to the internet at the earliest possible age.