Shop Class

“Boys learning capentry work in Shop class.”
Photo by Bernard Hoffman, September 1949, LIFE Archives

It’s the smell of sawdust, piles of sheet metal shavings, spent sandpaper lying about.  It’s the whir of a wood lathe, the “neeeeeeeeiiiiiaaaaoooo” of a tabletop saw, or the crunch of a press brake.  It’s making grandfather clocks, toolboxes, pen sets or even just a trivet for your mother.  It’s shop class.

Long a staple of elementary and secondary education until around the 1980s and ’90s, shop class began to be thrown by the wayside in favor of computer education.  Drill presses and band saws were quieted while the cooling fans of a thirty-computer technology lab droned in their place.

Matthew B. Crawford laments the demise of shop class–and the subsequent demise of society’s manual knowledge as a whole–in his book Shop Class as Soulcraft, published by The Penguin Press.

I have only just begun reading the book (I am on page 17), but I can already sense the sentiments I share with Crawford about the values of trade knowledge.

I was a lucky one.  Although I went through middle school in the early 2000s, after many schools had already done away with industrial arts programs, my school had a full tech ed program with multiple class offerings for each grade.

Mr. Chandler, who seemed ancient at the time but was really only 60-something, was an old-school shop teacher who had the decades of knowledge to back him up.

Whether it be simple wood projects, metalworking projects or technical drafting, Mr. Chandler could do it all–and teach it to restless 6th, 7th and 8th graders too.

One of my seventh grade projects, made in Mr. Chandler’s metalworking class. The toolbox was made from scratch, with all faces hand cut and bent with a press brake, the handles bent, the hinges fabricated and assembled and the whole thing spot welded together by me!

Of all the classes I took in middle school, it was Mr. Chandler’s shop classes I remember the most.  I remember the technical knowledge I learned, but I also remember the life skills he taught me.  The classes taught me discipline, the value of hard work and the value of not settling for sub-par workmanship.

And a man of incredible faith, Mr. Chandler was a sort of spiritual guide for not only myself, but for a lot of the kids who were in his class or attended his morning prayer sessions or Bible studies.

Mr. Chandler retired a couple of years ago, and I saw him recently.  He told me there is no longer a tech ed program at the school, because the school cannot find anyone with the skills to teach it, and it is seen as an “old fashioned” subject, a distinction Crawford discusses in his book.

I can’t wait to finish Crawford’s book.  I think shop class has too many lessons to teach students to give up on it.  Although off-site vocational/technological classes are offered in many districts, I don’t think they have the same reach and effect an on-site shop class has.

There is something to be said for building something with your hands, fixing something instead of replacing it, or just generally having the knowledge to let machines and technology work for you rather than the reverse.  I fear we may have lost that with the demise of shop class.  I thank God I had the chance to experience “old school” shop class like so many of my peers did not.

Cheers, Mr. Chandler.

“High School boy at work in machine shop. Oklahoma City High School”
Photograph by Lewis Wickes Hine, March 15, 1917, Library of Congress

“Boys working at forging. Oklahoma City High School”
Photograph by Lewis Wickes Hine, March 15, 1917, Library of Congress

“Eighth grade girls taking shop class.”
Photograph by Ralph Morse, April 1957, Jersey City, NJ, LIFE Archives

“Students in Hill School machine shop class as part of defense education as prep school adjusts to wartime basis.”
Photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1942, Pottstown, PA, LIFE Archives


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