there's only one thing that matters

  I will resist the urge to chime in on the whole President-Obama-"indoctrinating"-our-youth drama because I want to talk (write) about what I think is missing from education today.


My wife attended Rare Book School at the University of Virginia (the Hokie in me had a hard time typing those words) back in July; during her visit the class took a field trip to Monticello. Aside from the picture-postcard view from the back porch and the beautiful green linoleum flooring (Ellen is an artist and notices these things), what struck her most is that Thomas Jefferson, a man who had written the Declaration of Independence, a man who had been President, referred to himself later in life as a "farmer". As in, signed his name "Thomas Jefferson, Farmer". Imagine "Bill Clinton, Law Professor" or "George Bush, MLB team owner". Not going to happen.

Ponder that for a moment. Put aside all the political and moral ambiguities surrounding Jefferson (slave owner, etc.), and consider that he realized that all that matters in the end is the unglamorous business of living, of getting your hands dirty and making something real. As a side note, I'm intrigued by how the Presidential personality has evolved over time; it takes a raving egomaniac to want to be President today. Two hundred years ago they were just trying to be free from colonialism.

Which brings me to my theme: making. I'm a mathematician. I theorize. I play logic games all day. I teach these to my students in the form of calculus which they may be able to use to figure out the trajectory they should use for launching water balloons. Maybe they can figure out simple harmonic motion or heat flow. But I make nothing. Nothing real, anyway.

One semester I decided to teach a class in origami. I'm not one of those crazy origami guys who fold armadillos out of a single sheet of paper. Nor am I interested in folding a crane from a square piece of paper 2 mm on a side (this really exists, by the way). No, I just decided it might be fun to take 15 students and some paper and see what we could do. Aside from being fun I figured it would be an interesting change for all of us to see what happens when we decide to make instead of just talk.

I've never had so much fun teaching a class in my life. Being a mathematician, I decided to keep it geometric. We made some simple figures, learned how to divide a strip of paper into any odd number of equal lengths, even folded a crane. But the big one was a Level 3 Menger Sponge, built from 48,000 business cards:

[caption id="attachment_21" align="alignnone" width="199" caption="photo by Joshua Skinner"]photo by Joshua Skinner[/caption]


You can see some people in the background; that should give you some sense of the scale.  It's 4 1/2 feet on a side and weighs about 150 lbs.  It took 16 people over 400 man hours to complete.  It's only the third or fourth one of its kind in the world.  That's pretty cool.

But the best part of it was the making of it.  We had a blast.  Word spread that we were doing it and I was flooded with requests from students for me to offer the course again (I did, but we didn't build another sponge---I couldn't imagine what we'd do with another one).  It was then that I realized that we all have a deep-seated need to make.  Even if we've forgotten that we like it (just like most people forget they like math), our brains want us to go there.  We evolved opposable thumbs for a reason, and not just to make Mario Kart easier.

Ellen and I talk about this a lot.  She's a book artist, which means that, among other things, she makes books by hand.  As in folds the paper into folios, sews folios into signatures, and cases signatures into books.  We've gotten so used to books that no one understands when she hands them a handmade book that it wasn't done with a machine.  But her students get it.  They can't wait to ditch the computer and make something with their hands, to get back to the dirty work that made them fall in love with art and design in the first place.

Really good engineers don't get that way just because they're good at math and physics.  They succeed because they like to use their hands to build and design things.

Architects, too.

Writers work hard, at least good ones do.  They write (or type) it over and over until it's right.

Musicians.  Well anyone who has ever played an instrument knows how much making there is there.

Bricklayers do some of the most beautiful and exquisite work you've ever seen with their hands.

I'm not suggesting that my little origami project is equivalent to the hard work of farming or laying bricks (two jobs I appreciate but wouldn't really want to have), but the act is important.  We have to remind ourselves sometimes that there's more to life than theorizing.

We all crave it.  We all want to make.  And that is what we've lost through our addiction to screens and our society's devaluing of trades.  As much as I might grouse about it, when I'm done with one of the many home projects I'm tackling these days I always feel a sense of pride, my making jones satisfied.