The Issue at Hand

The Issue at Hand

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We learn through our hands in both mundane and mysterious ways. This drawing, used in Enigma by Amos Paul Kennedy Jr., depicts an ancient Roman "hand of power," a talisman of protection and blessing.

The power of education.

Nick Offerman has a dream - to go back to school. The self-taught Los Angeles woodworker envisions a nine-year curriculum for himself. He'd start at College of the Redwoods on California's Mendocino coast, in the renowned program begun by the late James Krenov.

"If I could just have three years off to go to that school," he says longingly, "and then another three years to go to the North Bennet Street School in Boston, because that's a whole other set of Federal and period techniques that are mind-blowing. And then I'd take a third three years and I'd go to the Wooden Boat School in Brooklin, Maine."

It may be a little surprising that Offerman harbors such yearnings. From the outside, he appears to want for nothing. He's not only an accomplished furniture maker, but also a star of a hit TV series, Parks and Recreation, where he plays Ron Swanson, one of the most memorably quirky characters on the small screen. He's happily married to Megan Mullally, who played the charming nutcase Karen Walker on Will & Grace.

So why does this Hollywood big shot long for more schooling?

Because he knows firsthand - as so many committed craftspeople do - the thrills, comforts, and sheer grounding power of working with one's hands. He knows that, when you learn new skills, you add to your manual, mental, and emotional toolbox. You multiply your opportunities for self-fulfillment. You learn to think in new ways. You make creative progress, and the benefits can be profound.

Throughout his life, and especially in his years as a struggling actor going from one audition to the next, woodworking has been Offerman's therapy, lifeblood, salvation, and joy. He's not alone, of course. For thousands of makers across the country, handwork is one of the most powerful forms of stress relief - cheaper than a shrink, more efficient than meditation, and a lot less risky than drugs and alcohol.

So if making things by hand is such a potent antidote to life's pressures, as so many have discovered, are we teaching it in school? Are we arming our children with the craft skills they need to make their own contentment, to withstand the blows and hassles of modern life?

Well, not so much. As artist Harriete Estel Berman points out, our educational apparatus seems focused on increasingly formulaic teaching, standardized testing, and quantifiable results. In many places, the arts have been squeezed out. Some people view art class and woodshop as luxuries we can't afford when our rank in the global economy is at stake.

I understand the need for standards in school, the need to keep pace in the world. But I worry that, as we drill facts into heads, we neglect hands and hearts. I worry that tomorrow's citizens will know calculus but not the lathe. I'm grateful to public figures like Offerman for reminding people of the calming powers of handwork. I'm grateful to North Bennet and the other craft schools that not only persevere but also innovate. I'm grateful to all those museums that offer regular hands-on programming for kids. And I'm grateful to advocates such as Berman for pointing out that our schools may be undermining the inventiveness we say we want to instill in our children.

It seems obvious to many of us: Learning to make things brings unmatched rewards for a lifetime. How can you help spread the word?