On 15 March, I screened my new documentary film, The Intelligent Hand, at the Fab Lab in London. The event was hosted by the RSA Inequality in Education Network and attracted a diverse audience of educators, university academics, practicing craftspeople, woodwork trainees, and professionals from various sectors. I began with a short talk on craftwork and education, and the screening was followed by a period of focussed discussion amongst audience members in small groupings. In turn, this set the stage for an open Q&A and general conversation.
I began with a brief overview of the anthropological fieldwork I have carried out over the past two decades with minaret builders in Yemen, mud-brick masons in Mali, and fine woodwork trainees in Britain. These studies aimed to understand the technical, social and cultural dimensions of apprenticeship systems and skill-based learning. My research has formed part of a burgeoning interest among social scientists, educators, and cognitive and neuroscientists in embodied ways of learning and knowing.
My findings robustly challenge the enduring Cartesian division made between internal mind operations and physical doing. The data demonstrates that craftspeople are thinking with tools-in-hand, and they are actively engaged with materials, other actors, and the surrounding environment in their pursuits to solve problems, enhance skills, broaden knowledge, construct social identities and build professional status.
In conclusion, I stressed that practical skill learning is not ‘unthinking imitation’. Rather, it involves multiple and highly complex forms (of often non-verbal) communication; and, like scholarly knowledge, skilled practice is a hard-earned cognitive achievement. Britain’s education policies need to be reformed around a more holistic definition of ‘knowledge’ – one that recognises the unity of mind and body and that desists from imputing hierarchy between them. Practical know-how must be accorded the value and status that it merits: not merely for increasing economic productivity or reducing the nation’s skills gap, but more importantly craftwork should be celebrated and promoted as an attractive career path leading to satisfying work and life.
The ensuing discussion was framed by the broad question: ‘What needs to change in order to make vocational education and craftwork attractive options in Britain?’
Angela observed that, historically, England’s education policy has been framed by a persistent mind-body dualism. By contrast, she urged recognition of 'the parity between using one’s brain and one’s hands', drawing attention to the Steiner School example and its emphasis on learning-by-doing. Anna later noted that tuition fees for Steiner Schools were prohibitively costly for the average family, while, distressingly, state school curricula for young children includes little (if any) practical hands-on learning. Cheryl, a college woodworking instructor in the audience, added that, regrettably, 'many secondary schools no longer host woodworking courses: it’s expensive; it takes up a lot of space; the tools and machinery are expensive; and the overheads are expensive.' As a consequence, career options in the crafts and trades have been rendered invisible to British youth. Another audience member responded, 'there is a need to make craftspeople role models'. Like sports celebrities, artists, and renowned chefs, their names, skills, values, and contributions to society need to be made part of popular public discourse.
Both David and Sam, as spokesmen for their groups, interrogated the entrenched divide between academic and vocational education, and society’s tendency to stereotype ‘vocational education’ as 'a cheap job-training scheme, providing a basic level of skills to get people into employment'. The ambiguity of the term ‘vocational’ and its relation to the equally woolly category ‘craft’ was raised. Emma, a furniture maker, queried the distinction made at her college between fine woodwork as a craft and the bench joinery programme as a vocational route. It was suggested that the NVQ framework has had the effect of narrowing popular understanding of ‘vocational’ as a kind of ‘non-academic, technical training’. The members of another group championed the idea that ‘doing something with your hands should not be divorced from a university education’.
The subject of ‘power and inequality’ was also tabled for discussion. Graham proclaimed that, ultimately, ‘it’s all about power: about empowering people to bring about social and economic change’. He lamented craft’s second-class status and ventured, ‘If people – in education, in politics, in society – could be made to understand that craftwork can be powerful, it would move mountains. But until we achieve that realisation, we’ll carry on with the malaise that we’ve got.’
According to Rachel, the starting point for change needs to be with us, the consumers: ‘We need to stop buying cheap sh** from IKEA. We need to seriously understand the value of an object and the effort that goes into making something.’ Emma, the furniture maker, shared her story of struggle to make a living as a craftsperson and the need to find work outside her practice in order to make a living and survive. Wendy reasoned that ‘Alongside craft skills need to go business skills,’ and that needs to be core to all vocational training.
Brian underscored the need to focus on inequality, as it is expressed in power structures, gender hierarchies, social-class privilege and, importantly, access to education, training and work within the craft sector. He felt that craft has an important role to play in counteracting inequality in its various guises. With regard to gender, Cheryl, a college instructor in fine woodworking, noted that in some years no female trainees enrol on the programme. This fact puzzled her because, she said, ‘there is not the same stigma attached to going into the carpentry trades for girls as there is for boys’. It is regularly perceived that young men going into the trades must have failed or performed poorly in school, whereas this judgement was not levelled at young women.
Charlotte offered final thoughts on the original seminar question, investing hope in the neurosciences to positively change popular (mis)conceptions about the mind-body relation.
‘The neurosciences are informing us that learning is a whole-body activity […] All forms of education and work demand that our sensory capabilities are fully developed. When an individual is developed in this way, they are both craftsperson and academic, endowed with creative understanding. We need to develop people broadly.’
Thanks to the Inequality in Education Network and to all who participated in the conversation and exchange.
Emeritus Professor of Social Anthropology, SOAS