Thoughts Provoked by a Sloyd Workbench Advertisement

A bit of personal history –

I never touched a tool in high school.  When I was there, kids were openly placed in two “tracks;” either Academic or General education.  I know I wasn’t the sharpest student and I generally disliked almost everything about being in school but I was placed among the Academics.  In lieu of shop classes (woodworking, metal shop, electricity, etc.) I learned a lot from a former engineer-cum-teacher who taught Drafting and Engineering Drawing.  This was the closest thing to shop class a kid on the Academic track could do.  Why? I have no idea.  We learned about house design, making scale plans, estimating materials, and other useful things.

Engineer drawing.

Fortunately, my grandfather was a handy guy who grew up on a farm and spent his early years in the building trade so I learned the basics of using a square, compass, saws, planes, and the like from him.  Also, being left as a somewhat feral child, I was able to use and abuse the family tools and learned many valuable lessons the slow and often frustrating way.  When I was sixteen, I began working part-time for a construction company as a laborer with the thought I might make that my profession.  I learned a lot, both good and bad, by observation and exposure, and continued to work as a carpenter in various capacities through graduate school a decade later.

Elementary school Sloyd.

Where am I going with this ramble? 

It was a long and meandering road for me with many side excursions and dead-ends, and although I feel grateful for all the lessons and training I received along the way, I sometimes lament the loss of craftsmanship and the values of creativity in schools.  In short, education isn’t an either/or proposition; that you are either on track for academic pursuits or you will be in the labor force.  I have met many geniuses with little formal education and many fine academics who excel in the manual arts.

Teach your children well.  Real life skills are too important to be left to others.

Rules of Conduct – From the Pen of Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson wrote reams of good advice, important political philosophy, the Declaration of Independence, and many other things (which is why we know so much about him).  To some of his younger relations he sent his favorite “Rules of Conduct” to help the people he cared for better and more insightful humans.  These thoughts evolved over time so versions vary slightly depending upon the source.  Here is a facsimile of the ten point “rules” with a slightly different version spelled out below.

Thomas Jefferson's Advice.

Thomas Jefferson’s Advice.

  1. Never put off to tomorrow what you can do to-day.
  2. Never trouble another with what you can do yourself.
  3. Never spend your money before you have it.
  4. Never buy a thing you do not want, because it is cheap, it will be dear to you.
  5. Take care of your cents: Dollars will take care of themselves.
  6. Pride costs us more than hunger, thirst and cold.
  7. We never repent of having eat too little.
  8. Nothing is troublesome that one does willingly.
  9. How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened.
  10. Take things always by their smooth handle.
  11. Think as you please, and so let others, and you will have no disputes.
  12. When angry, count 10 before you speak; if very angry, 100.

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Charles Peale, 1791.

Despite some obvious flaws that glare in the light historic hindsight, Jefferson was steeped in classical philosophy and was a great thinker in his own right.  If we all could live by these rules the world would be a better place.

And finally, while providing an outline for his daughters’ education he suggested while he was away on business:

“With respect to the distribution of your time, the following is what I should approve:

From 8. to 10. o’clock practise music.
From 10. to 1. dance one day and draw another.
From 1. to 2. draw on the day you dance, and write a letter next day.
From 3. to 4. read French.
From 4. to 5. exercise yourself in music.
From 5. till bedtime, read English, write, &c.

..I expect you will write me by every post. Inform me what books you read, what tunes you learn, and inclose me your best copy of every lesson in drawing. Write also one letter a week either to your Aunt Eppes, your Aunt Skipworth, your Aunt Carr, or the little lady from whom I now enclose a letter. . . . Take care that you never spell a word wrong.  Always before you write a word, consider how it is spelt, and, if you do not remember it, turn to a dictionary. It produces great praise to a lady to spell well…

If you love me, then strive to be good under every situation and to all living creatures, and to acquire those accomplishments which I have put in your power, and which will go far towards ensuring you the warmest love of your affectionate father,

Th. Jefferson”

He was known, like most of us, as a far-from-perfect father but his advice was sound.  Three hours of music per day, be good to all living creatures, draw, dance, and read. Obviously, this advice applies to the wealthy and elite who do not toil all day but even in the modern world there are worse ways to spend an idle day.

It sounds like a wise path.

A Need for Heroism

There is a need for learning the right stories in childhood.

A young knight facing a dragon, Warwick Goble (British, 1862–1943).

“Since it is so likely that (children) will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker.”

― C.S. Lewis


“I never let my schooling interfere with my education”

Mark Twain

Wise words.   Sometimes I think we’re entering a Dark Age just at the moment when we have vastly more knowledge at our fingertips than ever before.  We can look far out into space and at the tiniest of the tiny to understand our universe like never before.  Schooling is not the same thing as education.  I believe in both.  One teaches us what we need to know to cope with the basic expectations of society; a normalization of sorts whereas the other teaches us to think and analyze and build upon our prior knowledge.  Neither does the job perfectly and both are necessary for a decent life.

A look at the news or social media shows that people like simple answers and especially those that reinforce what they already feel or want to believe.

Never stop learning…

The Useful Man

Some thoughts on a “useful man” from 1852. Possibly the best thing I’ve read this year.

“The useful man would be the necessary link in the chain that ought connect the man of science and the daily workman, for he would lay one hand on the theory and the other on the practice, and would often take the place of the two.”

Lost Art Press


We have scientific writers of several kinds, and their number is continually increasing; there is no harm in that, but their studies are mainly directed to form theorists capable of ordering workmen, but unable to put their own hands to the work. Banish to their country seats the most celebrated engineers, and they will be as embarrassed to perform the smallest thing for themselves, as our statesmen, magistrates, professors, poets, painters, and wealthy merchants.

If a lamp leaks, a coffee-pot is broken, a screw lost, a lock damaged, or a chair on three legs—and for a thousand other petty trifles—they must send to the neighboring town. If it is an emergency, a messenger on horseback must be dispatched, with perhaps a kettle round his neck, and a couple of watering-pots in his hand: there is no poor Robinson Crusoe to be found in these oases of luxury and indigence.

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Something to keep in mind when learning a new skill.

A Primitive Technology Disclaimer.

I firmly believe that in Preindustrial Societies, the onus of learning was on the pupil.  Anyone who wants to succeed will find a way to learn.  

Real learning is an active endeavor.  We learn best by carefully observing and doing.  There will be failures.  There will be frustration and tears.  Not everything will be obvious nor will the reason for every step be readily apparent.  It is not the duty of the teacher to drag every unwilling pupil along nor argue every point to their satisfaction every step of the way.  Failure is not something to fear but is something to learn from.  If you don’t like the teacher or the methods, either suck it up or find another teacher.

GT Crawford

Learning from Masters (not me, just what I seek)

Using archaeology to find out hows things “should be” done?  A response to a common question, by George Thomas Crawford

I am regularly asked about my connection to archaeology and my interest in primitive technology.  I’ve also been chided by some people in the primitive tech community on behalf of other archaeologists because they (archaeologists) are not all directly interested in the primitive skills.  There is so much more to the anthropology of material culture and our human past than just the replicative technology.  It just happens to be what I’m into.

Many of my anthropological colleagues are way smarter and more focused than I am and go in for chemistry, microscopy studies, site and landform formation, human-animal interaction, plant-use, kinesiology, geology and humans, climate change, genetics, biocultural evolution, and a slew of other cool stuff that isn’t generally covered in the popular press.

But on that note, I scan journals and the web for hints at solutions to my own replicating attempts and experiential archaeology.  These are the masters.  For example: A person who earned his keep as an archer 4,500 years ago will know an infinite amount more about bows, arrows, strings, and animals than I could glean in a lifetime of the modern world.  Lucky for me, this type of thinking ties directly to how I want to live.  That is to say, in a style that predates, in many ways, the horrors and unforeseen consequences of the Industrial Revolution.  Not as a seeker of some non-existent Golden Age but as a searcher for the truth.  We have succeeded as a species in our present form for only a very short time so far, though we think of ourselves as lords and masters of all we survey.  We even create institutions and religions to reaffirm this and place ourselves where we see fit in this scheme.

Moving on – I was given some excellent advice by an old professor when I was in college that guided my wild academic wanderings for many years. Unfortunately I expect this sort of thinking would not go far with many students today.  The advice is essentially as follows.

– Assume that most everything you will imagine as a young scholar has been thought about, examined, and studied by your predecessors.  This does not mean to lose hope, just realize you have a long way to go and a high hurdle to cross. You can’t stand on the shoulders of giants without a serious climb.

1) For a student who truly wants to learn, it is now your full-time occupation whether that is college or not.  Scholar is a job.  You have chosen to not just take up space in a classroom and have your named checked off as attending.  Those people waste all of our time and you know who you are.  Best of luck, just don’t bother us.

2) It is your responsibility to teach yourself as much as possible.  This is done by filling your spare time by exposing yourself to knowledge not mindless entertainment.  Leave that to the zombies and the drones of the world.

A simple way to learn is to park yourself in the library and to peruse journals.  Not starting with today, but starting with research from a hundred years ago, or preferably more.  I was advised (and I did this) to pick up the earliest bound volumes of Nature, Antiquity, and American Antiquity and flip through every issue.  Read the Table of Contents.  Now, pick at least one article from each and read it.  Really read it.  You may not retain all of this information but it sticks with you in some form.  You will begin to see trends in how we think and study and write about what we do.

3) Stop worrying about what you will do for a job after college.  People obsessed with this are the most unsuccessful people I know.  If you truly just want to make money, drop out of college NOW and go learn a trade.  Be a welder, mechanic, or a carpenter*.  If you don’t want to contribute to society in any real way or are just of a greedy or slightly evil turn of mind, try banking or investment.  If you just want to slide through without too much effort or reward, try the federal government or other forms of middle management.  I see too much vocational thinking in the quest for knowledge and not enough seeking.

4) Finally, develop a passion for what you want to learn.  Hopefully this is obvious and has already happened to you but sometimes we need to be told.  If we don’t love what we do, this short life will be a very unhappy one (by “do” in this sentence, I don’t necessarily mean “how we earn our money” but what we identify as; e.g., potter, woodworker, musician, or knitter).

And a final caveat: I don’t think I am in any position give real advice to others but I do feel that maybe I should answer some of the questions I’ve become so adept at evading.  Have a great day and hopefully a happy life.


*I personally think this is critical to become a well-rounded person anyway.

Intelligence, something to think about

“Suppose my auto-repair man devised questions for an intelligence test. Or suppose a carpenter did, or a farmer, or, indeed, almost anyone but an academician. By every one of those tests, I’d prove myself a moron, and I’d be a moron, too. In a world where I could not use my academic training and my verbal talents but had to do something intricate or hard, working with my hands, I would do poorly. My intelligence, then, is not absolute but is a function of the society I live in and of the fact that a small subsection of that society has managed to foist itself on the rest as an arbiter of such matters.
Isaac Asimov, from What is Intelligence, Anyway?