On Education

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Adventures in Education


Recently I quit a teaching job at PTSW (The Port Townsend School of Woodworking). I’d like to reflect on education generally and delve into this specific situation a bit, where it might benefit a student. 

Given our current national political situation, it pains me to see a failure of analysis, reflection and action by many in the face of the factual. I think that this situation is at least partially the result of a failure in education. Education is what gives the individual a method to rationally determine fact from fiction.


Woodworking is sectarian. What I mean is that each school believes that its methods and ethic is the one true faith. I believe that a good woodworking school is one with a thoughtful, deep and varied intellectual environment where best practices are taught.


The Krenovians (Students in the Fine Woodworking Program at the College of the Redwoods in Fort Bragg, CA) are all about wood, observing carefully its color and figure, and work to compose their pieces from that. Hand worked surfaces and exquisite joinery are executed in a pure, non-commercial monastic setting. 


At The North Bennet Street School when I attended, formal class periods did not exist. Teaching using high style American Period Furniture gave students a method of high level making. After North Bennet, graduates could design and build nearly anything. I found North Bennet to be successful anarchy: students at that time were free to do good work. The benchroom with students at varied stages in their progress through the course set up a quiet expectation that students would responsibly do excellent work. The presence of an advanced student at the next bench aided the novice: the work ethic was implicit and technique could be observed constantly and informally.


At RISD (The Rhode Island School of Design) people were doing lovely, wild, interesting work in a harsh critical environment. I think that the language of art is varied. It is marketing language in a market driven culture. It is obfuscatory and confused. Partially this is because artists are visual and when they delve into language they sometimes get lost. As artists growing up in a critical educational environment, they can start to hide their expression in confused and deliberately impenetrable language. An Orwell quote comes to mind:

“MEANINGLESS WORDS. In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning. Words like romantic, plastic, values, human, dead, sentimental, natural, vitality, as used in art criticism are strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly ever expected to do so by the reader”

Politics and the English Language

Further, the language of art is a tyranny. Students are harshly criticized for reasons that are not pedagogically useful: the expression of ego by the critics and the need for social ranking among the students. Perhaps professors feel a need to weed out or intimidate their future competition. 


Generally as a teacher, or as an administrator, the staff at a school must ask: Who is at the center of the educational experience? The student is. Following from that should be the org chart of the school. Staff and administrators are there to help the teachers help the students.


Going back to sects, Art Furniture is often lovely creative work. If it has drawbacks, the two that strike me immediately are that the work often is in response to perceived or actual criticism. The other is a class attitude in the art furniture maker: "My parents were professionals. A craftsman is working class, a prole, not thoughtful. If that craftsperson is doing period work they are not thinking, they are just reproducing. I, as an art furniture maker am a designer, an intellectual". This latter, worse drawback is conceited and pervasive.


At PTSW the work coming from the Foundations Course is hand based to the extreme. This is useful in giving students a deep knowledge of the material, layout and technique. It reflects Jim Tolpin’s very thoughtful body of work and the establishment of the school.


There are developments in that course that are somewhat a function of its brevity, but the ones that come to mind for improvement are:

  • The insistence on hand work through the course particularly in the final project gives little time for design.
  • The individual hand scale layout system with no real instruction in scale drawing makes for design difficulties. The lack of consistent scale in the drawings makes it difficult for a student to know the size of their piece. The instructor reviewing the work has a hard time judging scale and offering design improvements. A small woman is working in base 4 and a large guy in base 12. The math teacher is having a difficult time.
  • The methods of gluing up are not thoughtful. There are no staged glueups of subassemblies. Students are instructed to go 3D from a pile of parts. Joinery methods insist on this: mortise and tenon assemblies have mortises through the parts and tenons miter into them. You cannot accurately glue up a 3D structure when trying to clamp across two axes. The clamps interfere with each other and the 3D structure goes into wind. I saw far more wound glued up 3D frames in a 3 month course at PTSW than would have been with well reasoned joinery and staged, sub-assembly glue-ups.
  • Recently I taught a couple of short courses at PTSW. Another instructor had completed a nice standing desk and brought it into the school, weeks after the finish was applied. I used the desk as a bookstand to display an inscribed first edition copy of a book written by my first woodworking teacher, John Kassay. The undried oil finish on the desk bled into the dust jacket of my book. Finishing should not be vegan. Japan drier is a wonderful thing.


Teaching is a gift: you are paid to give your knowledge to the student, rather than that knowledge being embodied in a piece in exchange for money. You must be present with the student and determine where they are and adjust your teaching style to their needs, abilities and learning methods. Student questions are to be quietly heard, respected and answered, not avoided. They make the instructor think through his or her method. You are not there to insist that the student learn and agree with your doctrine.


Many of the teachers at PTSW are lovely, kind, dedicated, bright, patient, smart people.


I had an argument with a staff member at school shortly before I left. I’d submitted a tool list for the winter course and it did not include mortise chisels. I was told that the student had a vocational economic need to know how to cut mortises by hand. I do not own any mortise chisels. Small shop woodworking and furniture making are a difficult way to make a living: you are swimming upstream against the industrial revolution and more recently the maker movement and CNC manufacturing/ 3D printing. Students in a short 3 month intensive course need design training and need to learn machine woodworking at a high level. They can then design and construct interesting work quickly and save time at the end for hand worked surfaces and embellishment. The failure to provide reflective design and advanced machine instruction leads to a repeated mediocre result in a furniture course.


Tendons are finite. With a student population whose average age is in their 50s, chopping mortises by hand (after the initial training exercises) in a shop where there are machines capable of doing this and other operations as well in much less time, the reasons for doing rote handwork are theological, not reasoned.


What follows are a couple of adventures in education. 

Several years ago I taught at a construction tech department at a community college. We will call him Dorfman. Dorfman was the tenure-track carpentry teacher and I was a part-time lecturer. Because of part-time contract rules I could only teach a course and a half per term. In practice that meant I taught one course, since Dorfman wanted a full teaching load and salary. I taught a cabinet and furniture making course in the evening. I would come in and prep on the afternoon of the course. Dorfman would ask me for tips on how to teach the second section of the same cabinet/ furniture course which he had the next day.


That spring, the school was building a new building and we met with the architects several times to spec the needs for the new building. My brother-in-law was the lead architect for the building. In one meeting, Dorfman looked at the drawings and asked: “Where are the shearwalls?” My brother-in-law answered: “There are no shearwalls, it is a metal building”. I will always think of him as Shearwalls Dorfman…


I taught part-time on and off at a private high school which was founded during the Arts and Crafts Movement. The school had some lovely old handplanes dating from the founding of the school. The long time woodshop teacher there, who I subbed for, did not know how to use them and literally could not sharpen a chisel. The reason for this is varied. Partially the school had gone college prep, but could not do away with the shops because this was written into the school’s endowment. The problem is also general to craft instruction in a de-industrialized country: it is not felt to be needed and is not supported. It is also administrative: the managerial conceit of administrators is that they are defining instruction. I disagree: it is the teachers and students who are, often despite the administration’s ignorance.


Generally instructors should teach courses that reflect their education/ training and demonstrated career competence. Course assignments should not be based on the employment needs of skilled bureaucratic players, or solely administrative requirements.


PTSW is confused. It has a second generation of teachers who have taken the hand tool ethic and transformed it into a humorless and less than joyous theological doctrine. One community member described the sectarian nature of the school as Branch Davidian. A friend of mine described it as the woodworking equivalent of Civil War reenactment. There is also a confusion about furniture. Is it craft or is it art? Hand tool acolytes are being fed into art furniture courses. Folks are teaching furniture intensives without training in furniture, without having developed a body of work themselves, without having portfolios. Art furniture folks patronize the traditionalists yet mostly do not themselves have a large body of work.


At PTSW, having not been trained in the program, I was thought to be an outsider or a heretic. I have joked that I am a furniture ecumenist. More seriously though, I believe that one should study one’s subject fully before teaching it. In 1985, after a couple of years serious study of furniture making and furniture history with John Kassay and Robert Treanor, I interviewed at the North Bennet Street School. After entering and walking around the big bench room and meeting George Fullerton, I realized that I knew nothing.*


Students need the benefit of a faculty varied, both in skills and and emotional abilities, so that their needs are addressed. Faculty need collegial respect and support and a helpful, respectful administrative staff. We as teachers give students a broad rational packet of information, high level methods of making, a supportive social environment and professional development. The student leaves and crafts a life.

© John P. McCormack May 16, 2020


*Note that respectively, John Kassay was, and Bob Treanor is, a skilled teacher. John was an author, illustrator, historian, educator, maker, photographer and thoughtful, humble, kind man. Bob is published in numerous woodworking magazines, is a very thoughtful furniture historian and skilled furniture maker. He is my friend. The program that they taught in, the Design and Industry Department at San Francisco State University, was a Industrial Arts training program for high school teachers. It also offered woodworking courses that could fulfill general education requirements. There was no full time training offered at SF State for furniture making.

© John P. McCormack 2019 & 2020