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An Education of Risk

Is teaching an art or a science? Such a question seeks to determine if there is a repeatable method to be followed in teaching—a formula to be applied—or if teaching is a matter of intuition, judgment, and inspiration. If a science governed by rigid rules, then anyone could be a teacher so long as he could learn and apply the technique. If an art, then every teacher must dedicate himself to his subject, audience, and craft in order to cultivate mastery. Teaching is a challenging profession requiring long study and practice.

Modern education applies industrial techniques to the classroom. The teacher is an assembly-line operator who rigidly applies method to his object. If the test scores are too low, educational directors review and revise the method in order to obtain the desired result. Education is a formulaic process with little leeway for adjustment. Schools employ teachers not for their expertise in teaching, but for their ability to apply idealistic methodology and achieve standardized outcomes. Method is king. Right method leads to right results. Yet such an approach removes what David Pye called “the workmanship of risk.”

20th century furniture maker David Pye defined craft as “simply any kind of technique or apparatus in which the quality of the result is not predetermined, but depends on judgment, dexterity and care which the maker exercises as he works. The essential idea is that the quality of the result is continually at risk during the process of making; and so I shall call this kind of workmanship ‘the workmanship of risk’.”

At every point in “the workmanship of risk,” the end result remains in question. One slip of the saw and the piece is suddenly 1/8” smaller than planned. Read your tape-measure upside down and make an apron an inch too short? Remake it. Accidentally carve the pull for a drawer upside down? The entire drawer must be remade. Every plane stroke correcting a board can also introduce irreversible deviation. The greatest potential for error lies not in the tool, but in the craftsman. The production of an excellent piece depends entirely upon the skill of the workman.

Pye is rejecting the industrial and machine working mindset. In machining wood, the jig and machine are set up to produce certainty. No personality of the technician may present itself in the finished product. Tool marks are absent and the maker’s influence is invisible. The furniture is uniform and interchangeable. The industrial revolution not only removes the risk involved in craft and making, but also the most enjoyable and rewarding aspects of the work of our hands: personality, diversity, and artistry.

One of the great difficulties of handcraft in a machine world is trying to apply the same standards of mass-production to individual handwork. The assembly-line dictates that every tenon could fit interchangeably with every mortise. The measurements are exact to half a thou’. In the world of mass-produced furniture, there is no risk and so no variation. It’s hard to disagree with that assessment after walking through the warehouses of IKEA. Any given “A” and “B” set off the shelf fit perfectly together as if they were made that way.

Yet who requires that every board must be perfectly 3/4” with surfaces that feel like plastic? Why should the backs and insides of dressers not bear rough tool marks? In place of interchangeable parts, every joint is unique. Each tenon does not need to fit every other mortise in the abstract, but only the particular mortise for which it was made. Since every joint is made individually, precise measurements aren’t even needed; just shape it until it fits. While there is increased risk, handcraft is also liberating.

Pye’s comments apply equally to the “education of risk” whose results are never predetermined, but depend upon the skill, judgement, and dexterity of the teacher. Each lesson, assignment, and interaction requires care and attention. No method can provide certainty to an educational program or individual lesson because human interaction is inherently risky. Every example provided to illumine a shadowed lesson may actually obstruct the light. Students and teachers are not a loose collection of interchangeable parts. There are no repeatable lessons or assignments. What causes one class to exclaim, “now I see it,” causes another to murmur in frustration. An “education of risk” is equal parts intuition and reflection, spontaneity and structure, creativity and discipline, dexterity and care.

It is easy to think that each year’s lesson plans can be recycled and reused with the same results or that past teachers can be replaced by new ones with no change in educational outcomes. If the standards are not met, it is a fault with the method, not the practitioner. This type of education aims at certainty; it wishes to guarantee results by eliminating the human complexities inherent in teaching. Schools boast of their GPA averages, SAT scores, and colleges to offer predictability to parents. They proclaim, “here is our product success rate.” Is education really that certain?

An incomplete graduate should not be seen as a failure. If we accept that teaching is a complex art, we should willingly accept gaps in knowledge, blunt skills, and even false conceptions of ideas. Take risks. Follow the rabbit trails that don’t lead to resolution. Stop pursuing an important idea, leaving it for a future date when the mature student may receive its full import. Abandon the lesson plan to address the personal troubles and questions of your students.

Education promises nothing certain. It rests upon skill, dexterity, and judgment. This requires teachers to train their abilities—mastery of content, pedagogy, and the liberal arts. Teachers must be practiced in their applications of the lost tools to the variety of tasks, rather than relying on repeatable methods and jigs which cannot develop the soul. Students are not widgets; they are humans. Strive not to present lessons, but to offer yourself. Leave the marks of your instruction upon your students which they can return to later and remember how they have been loved.

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