The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
On Some Aspects of Slöjd

by C. Russell
Volume 4, 1893/94, pgs. 321-333

A paper read before the Woodford Branch of P.N.E.U.

My chief object being to show cause why Slöjd should henceforth take an honorable place in our schools, I must first give my reasons for believing--what many, I know, do not believe--that as a school-subject, Slöjd not only has a real educational value, but a value as least as great as that of certain other school-subjects that have hitherto enjoyed more favour. We must, in a word, look first at the absolute, and then at the relative value of Slöjd, before we can decide either for or against it.

Before I proceed, however, to deal with even the first of these points, I must state shortly what Slöjd, as I understand it, is.

Time was, the histories tell us, when it was necessary to explain to an English audience that Slöjd was neither a person, nor a place, nor a patent medicine, but thanks to the spread of Education, those dark ages are now past, and an average Englishman can generally tell you roughly what Slöjd is, though he may not quite sure of the spelling.

The history of the word throws--in this case--but little light on the thing, so I shall not dwell on it, but merely content myself with stating boldly that Slöjd, the Swedish word, is still recognizable in our own sleight of hand--and that Slöjd the thing is a system of educational school hand-work. A system of educational hand-work: a SYSTEM, because it depends on certain well-defined principles, and follows a certain well-defined method; EDUCATIONAL, because it is not in any sense intended to give mere technical instruction, to teach a trade, but--in the highest sense--to educate; I say SCHOOL hand-work, because though men (and women) may engage in it with advantage, it is primarily intended for school-boys, and,--I should like to add with emphasis, if not with authority--school-girls; and I use the broad term HAND-WORK, because the system is by no means confined to wood--as many suppose--but may be applied (though, perhaps, less profitably) to card-board, metal, and other materials. As Wood-Slöjd however is the form in which the system has made what progress it has made in this country, I shall confine my remarks to-night to that particular form. And now, if I am to ask you to put a value, especially an educational value, on this system of school hand-work, you must bear with me if I describe it somewhat in detail.

Though, like all wise systems, it is slowly broadening down, it does still ultimately depend upon a few underlying principles which its founder, Herr Otto Salomon of Naas, and I think I may say, most of his disciples, are inclined to regard as essential and inviolable.

These fundamental principles may be summed up thus:--
      (1) The aim must be educational, not technical.
      (2) The teacher must be an educator, not a mechanic.
      (3) The teaching must be, as far as possible, individual.
      (4) The work must be systematic and progressive, and follow a sound method.

To take theses points in detail:

(1) The aim must be educational. The teacher of Slöjd that is, like the teacher of everything else, must ever bear in mind that his business is to make a good and wise man of the child, not a clever carpenter. There are clever carpenters, and to spare, turned out in the rough school of apprenticeship, often enough with curses and blows, but the supply of good and wise men still falls lamentably short of the demand.

The atmosphere of the school work-shop must be absolutely cleared of the pestilential vapours of commercial considerations; there must be no more question of the money value of the completed work than that of completed copy-books--nor must a boy be encouraged to persevere, because skill in handling tools may be useful to him in after life--though useful it undoubtedly will be--but because clumsy and ignorant hands disgrace a man no less than a clumsy and ignorant head.

We complacently place ourselves at the head of the animal creation, because forsooth of the cunning of our brain and tongue, but I fancy our claims to superiority would be no less valid if we based them on the cunning of our hands.

(2) The teacher must be an educator. He must know, and if possible, have been trained, how to educate and not be a mere mechanic, however skillful. A carpenter who is merely a carpenter can no more educate children through carpentry, than a Frenchman who is merely a Frenchman can educate them through French. Whereas, in the hands of a clever teacher, carpentry--I am bold to say--may be made almost as powerful educational instrument as Language, Science, or any other of our time-honored studies. I shall return to this point presently, and will only add here that though the teacher of Slöjd must be primarily an educator--he or she--must at the same time be thoroughly skilled in the use of tools, (and not only know how to handle and sharpen them, but also understand their construction and theory. I would even say that a knowledge of mechanical drawing, and of the nature and properties of different woods, is also requisite)--that the Slöjd specialist, in short, must be as fully equipped for his task as any other specialist. I emphasize this point because certain enemies of Slöjd have misrepresented its friends as holding the ridiculous opinion that a few weeks at Naas, or elsewhere, can turn--as if by magic--persons who have never before handled a plane into skilled carpenters, able to hold their own against men who have grown old at the bench, and fully competent to teach. No, the ideal teacher of Slöjd as of all else, is the man who is master of his craft, and though in the present un-ideal state of our educational labour-market, we have often to make the best of imperfection and pay incompetence a good wage, the capitalists--which is to say the PARENTS--are at length beginning to question the traditional processes, and will have soon "changed all that".

(3) The teaching must be individual--individual, that is, as far as profitable and practicable in a class of more than one. There are some things, of course, both in the classroom and the work-shop that it would be an unintelligent waste of time to teach individually, but, on the other hand, many of the compromises of the former are entirely out of place, in not impossible, in the latter. It would be just as absurd to put tools and materials into the hands of a class and expect them to perform each successive step of a given operation at one and the same time, as to set their dinners before them and ask them to carry out the different steps of that complicated operation simultaneously and satisfactorily. It is generally possible in class-room work to dictate the right answer, or put it on the black-board (of course with oral explanations) and, in this way, to show the whole class where, and often why, they are wrong. It is often possible too--and expedient--to form rapid wholesale judgments of how a certain piece of work has been done. But to judge of a squared bit of wood, or a joint, or, the finish of a box, you must handle it yourself. put your own finger on the defects--and their remedies. In the class-room, too, there is often so much division of labour, that what looks like class-teaching is in reality very largely individual, but from the Slöjd workshop, division of labour, from the moment the worker touches his material, is rigidly excluded. Each object must be entirely made by one pair of hands. Even the teacher must illustrate his instructions on another piece of wood. Success or failure will thus depend on individual effort alone, and the growth of self-reliance be encouraged.

(4) The work must be systematic and progressive, and follow a sound method. In other words, it must be true to certain fundamental and universally accepted educational principles, and proceed step by step, from the easy to the difficult, from the known to the unknown, and so on. School work-shops do exist, I believe, conducted on the opposite system, where, from a foolish belief that interest can only be sustained by giving more or less freedom of choice and action, boys (and perhaps girls) are allowed to attempt whatever their fancy suggests to them, however lofty their flights, and however inexperienced their fingers. But is this sacrifice of method essential to the awakening and sustaining of interest in the class-room? And if not in the class-room, why in the workshop? Nay, is not the very opposite the truth--that the easier the stages by which you lead the child along a new road, the more skillfully you, with your hidden art, enable him to vanquish difficulty after difficulty, as of his own accord, the more surely will he gain a sense of real power, and with that sense, a real interest.

The visible signs of these invisible principles,--the models,--admit, of course, of indefinite variation, and to my mind, the series of Naas, Leipzig and other centres, are but varying expressions of the same fundamental idea, differing only as Yes from the German Ja. But I must give you something more than generalizations, and show you a few actual models, from which you will be able to judge to what admirable method the old happy-go-lucky school-boy carpentry has been reduced. As an old Naas student, I obviously chose the Naas series, of which I have brought with me a few of the more portable specimens.

Before asking you to look at the models themselves, however, I ought perhaps to state the general conditions that an educationally sound series is expected to satisfy. They are shortly as follows: the models must consist of familiar, useful articles, of varied and artistic shape, and of graduated difficulty, the earlier ones being quite easy and such as can be made with the simplest of tools. Each model must introduce some new manipulation, and must serve as a stepping-stone to the next. To give you an idea of how thoroughly this last principle is carried out in the Naas system, I must tell you that the work of a two years' school course (for a boy of 11 or 12 say, working 2 to 3 hours a week) has been carefully analysed, and found to consist of some ninety fundamental manipulations. These manipulations--technically called exercises--have been arranged and numbered in order of difficulty--approximately only, of course--and thus serve as a basis for the models, each of which, while introducing one or two new exercises, also affords practice in those with which the learner is already familiar. This first model, for instance (called a Pointer and used in Sweden by children in the Kindergarten to point to their letters) involves the first two exercises, viz; the long cut, and the cross cut; this one, the first 3: long, cross, and oblique cuts; this one the 1st, 2nd and 4th;--long, cross and bevel cuts, and so on. The first two models are made entirely with the knife--as the simplest of all tools, and the one with which every boy is familiar--; in the 3rd the saw is introduced; in the 5th the plane; in the 6th the bit and brace; in the 7th the file; and so on.

And not only must the series be worked methodically through, but there is also a carefully and logically thought out method for working each model. This first simple-looking round pointer, for instance. Do you suppose the children are given some such rough bit of wood as this, and a knife, and then, with the model before them, told to cut away as they like? By no means! They are first told to make the four sides equal and square, using rule and square and working to measure--then to square the ends--in itself no mean task, nor without much moral significance, as I myself have experienced. They then have to draw diagonals at each end to fix the centre line--and note that, should this be omitted, a model is often spoilt. A smaller square again of specified size, must then be drawn at the end which is to be the point, and the wood is cut to the shape of a topped pyramid, having first been set out with rule and pencil. It is then made octagonal, then round, and then, at the blunt end, cut to the required length. This working accurately to measure is in itself of the greatest educational value. Not that the pointer would be any the less serviceable if a trifle longer, or shorter, or thicker, but because in the higher models--and indeed wherever in life there is an interdependence of parts,--accuracy is of such extreme importance. When the knife has done its part quite satisfactorily--but then only--the model may be finished off with sandpaper.

Personally, indeed, I should be inclined to postpone the use of sandpaper, as it may hide so much slovenliness, but that is a detail which each teacher may well settle for himself. Personally, too, I should strongly advocate the preliminary making of each of the simpler models by the teacher, before the eyes of the class, as a means of showing them, in the concrete, what they have to do. You see then that even in this first model, simple as it is, there is a definite plan to be followed, connected steps which follow each other almost as logically as those of a proposition of Euclid. Should the child ask WHY? the teacher can always answer BECAUSE, and that supreme word THEREFORE will be often on his lips. And let me here add that the child may well be asked to draw his model (in all its stages) either before or after making it. In this way he will not only be training hand and eye in a still further degree, but he will also gradually learn to work from drawings alone, and gain the power of readily reading the flat as relief, and--what is far more difficult--of expressing relief on the flat. I will also add, least any of you should be enamored of examinations, oral or written, that I have seen wood-work "Papers" that amply satisfied the essential condition of all useful examination papers, which is, I take it, that besides testing knowledge of the particular subject, they shall also test general intelligence. I must not take any other model in detail, or I shall weary you, but you will readily believe that all I have said about this first easy one applies with increased force to the more complicated ones that follow.

If you will presently look through these that I have in front of me, you will, I think, see that they, the models, are all familiar and useful articles--in Sweden, that is, where they were designed. They are also sufficiently varied, and curved outlines and surfaces are constantly coming in to break the monotony of too many straight lines. I said also that one condition of a good series of models was that they should be artistic--but beyond stating that this series was submitted to one or two leading Swedish artists, with entirely satisfactory results, I will not emphasize this point. I should just like to say, however, that even if you should consider these things hopelessly ugly and inartistic, you will have proved nothing against the soundness of the Slöjd principle--you will only have proved the insufficiency of this particular application, and that a simple, useful and artistic series of models has yet to be invented.

Having told you in outline what Slöjd is, and how it should be taught, I enter upon the more difficult task of estimating its educational value, and saying why it should be taught.

First let us look at what I have ventured to call its absolute value. What would a boy (or girl) learn--to put an extreme and almost absurd case--who should be educated upon Slöjd alone? Much, very much! They would obviously remain utterly ignorant of many important branches of human knowledge, they would learn neither to read or write, nor to 'rithmetic, but, upon the other hand, they would certainly train their eyes to real power in seeing, and their hands to real power in doing, and would moreover--other things being equal--be sure of at least a sound body. But this is not all; They would be doing something, too, towards a sound mind, for, in the hands of a wise teacher--a skilled educator, they would learn, I feel certain, to be orderly, accurate, attentive, industrious, thoughtful, and self-reliant,--nay, I will go even further, and add truthful. Orderliness, accuracy, attention, industry, thoughtfulness, self-reliance, truthfulness--verily a list of nearly all the virtues! And can these precious seeds be sown in a workshop? Yes, I have no doubt of it, and with no less chance of fruition than in the class-room or the house of God. For, in the first place, is it not an accepted fact that all work directed to a useful, and therefore to an honourable end, and done under the eye of a wise master, may be made a means of character building? And, in the second place, think what is involved in squaring a piece of wood, moulding a curve, or fitting a joint, under the system I have described. The simple straight line is the basis of all construction, and enters, in its various combinations, into nearly everything our hands can fashion--and yet how few of us can even draw it on paper, much less produce it in wood! We are satisfied with an approximation, with getting it nearly right. And is not that the characteristic of most of our thought, our action--that we are satisfied if we can keep pretty close to the line of the ideal? But must not the boy who learns to cut accurately learn to think accurately? Is it not thought that guides the knife? Of course I am only now speaking of the earlier stages of hand-work, which, like most other work, tends to become, after a time, mechanical, and then no doubt loses much of its educational value. But judging from my personal experience, I should say no school-boy would ever reach the mechanical stage. Notice further that in hand-work there is nothing to lead to mental confusion--the aim is clear, and the boy knows when he has reached it; idleness, too, stands self-condemned, it cannot be concealed--and here I am perforce led into making comparisons--it cannot be concealed by specious half-truths or slovenly make--believe; each must work for himself, for the wise master will neither give nor allow help, and "copying" is simply impossible; carelessness and inattention bring their own swift punishment--sometimes, though rarely, with blood; success is attested by the work itself as it grows under the deft hand to the required shape; failure is also self-evident, and often the reason of failure. Nor can failure easily be hidden. A line is either straight or not. If not straight it cannot be juggled into looking straight. The word is true, and teaches truth. There is no possibility either of dishonestly putting down the right answer to the wrong working. It does sometimes happen in the more complicated models that inside defective work may be concealed, but this the teacher is careful to guard against, and seizes his opportunity of pointing out that fair without and foul within--even in woodwork--is of the nature of hypocrisy and lying.

And the school work-shop is especially blessed in that the element of chance--that fruitful source of evil--can, in its worst form, find no place there, success and praise depending only upon honest, steady, intelligent work, not upon random guessing, or lucky "tips", or the colour of a card. Moreover, all progress must be real progress. A boy may scrape through to the end of his Latin Grammar, or even his Algebra, with little or no real knowledge of the middle or the beginning, but he will never reach the higher stages of hand-work, till he has thoroughly mastered the earlier ones. And "thoroughly mastered" means "thoroughly mastered" not "committed to memory for to day and forgotten by to-morrow".

Have I attempted to prove too much? Will someone ask: "If, as you say, the workshop is the nursery of all the virtues, why are our workmen--as a body--still so far from models of virtue?" My answer is ready. I do not say the workshop is such a nursery, but that it might be; nor am I indeed speaking of the commercial workshop, where the aim is money, where hurry pays, and where often dishonesty at least seems to be the best policy, but of the educational work-shop, where the aim is character, where time is not money, and where good work--for there must be no demoralizing "prizes"--is its own bountiful reward. And even here, in the ideal educational workshop, the influence of the teacher counts for more than I can say. Material, tools, models, are in themselves of little moment, it is as a medium only that they are invaluable, a medium by which the educated heart and mind can work on hearts and minds that are still to mould. And I do not say that there will be no failures--charm a man never so wisely, the charm must sometimes fail--I only say there will be many successes.

So much then for what I have called the absolute value of Slöjd. Now for its relative value--though here I feel my ground to be much less secure. Very many people will agree with me when I claim for hand-work a distinct educational value, who will probably not agree with me when I come to compare that value with other values. This is, indeed, none other than the old, old question which under many an alias--has puzzled our fathers and fathers' fathers, and will continue, I doubt not, to puzzle our children and our childrens' children: What shall we teach in our schools? What knowledge is of the most worth? What do we mean by education? What is the end, the final aim, of Life? It would be as impertinence in me to attempt to work out in a few minutes, a solution to a complicated problem unsolved by centuries. But as you have done me the honour to ask me here, I may at least state in a condensed form the sort of answer to which, after some working and thinking, I have been led--an answer which, however it may differ in a few details, is, in the main, the same as that of numberless other workers at the problem.

The supreme end of all education then, the education both of school and life, I take to be--to use an admirable phrase of Professor Laurie's--"effective virtue." But to reach this supreme end, with how much in the way of equipment must we be provided? What storehouses of virtue must our hearts be! of knowledge our memories! what perfect instruments of thought our minds! and--may we not add--what perfect instruments of action our bodies! Heart, mind, body, do they not all go to the making of the complete man? Can we neglect without the cultivation of either? Or can we without danger postpone it? No, the true education--in which I include instruction--of heart, mind and body, must begin--I am not afraid to say it--in the cradle, and, though the child will one day grow into a man, must never cease. Home, school, world, they are all one; each should but continue the work of the other; and that work is to foster and bring to fruition whatever of good has been implanted in man--to stifle and destroy whatever is an influence for evil.

And thus it seems to me that the school has a threefold duty: to instruct and train the heart, to instruct and train the mind, and--if you will allow me the expression--to instruct and train the body. And these three are so closely interconnected that neither can be neglected without ultimate loss.

I hold this so firmly, that even if you could prove to me--what we so often hear said--that the precious years of school life are all too few to think seriously of anything but the mind--and in a few odd half-hours perhaps of the heart--I would urge that a little neglect of all were better than entire neglect of one. There is certain obvious food for the mind, which is a very necessary of any life worth the name, and if I had to choose between teaching a boy Slöjd and giving him skill and intelligence in the use of his Mother Tongue, or a love for its literature, or an acquaintance with the broad lines of History, or the broad principles of numerical operation, or a few fundamental notions as to the nature of the world he lives in, I should, I need hardly say, let Slöjd go to the winds.

But if my choice were between Slöjd and a foreign tongue (whether ancient or modern) or the dry bones of grammar, or of history, or even the dry bones of religion, I should as unhesitatingly let these go to the winds and hold fast to Slöjd.

But I do not think anybody ever is reduced to this extremity. We only ask for Slöjd 1 1/2 or at the most 2 hours a week, and I cannot believe that the most ideal time-table ever excogiated would be any the less ideal for including it. How common it is to have school periods of an hour, and often 5 in the day! Now I am convinced that if 10 minutes or even a quarter of an hour, could be taken from some of these long spells of mental exertion and spent in the healthy atmosphere of the work-shop, both teachers and taught would be the gainers, body and soul. And even if, with all possible compression, no place could be found in the regular time-table, surely nothing but good could come of holding a weekly class out of school hours. Far from imposing a fresh burden on the already heavily burdened child, it would even then come as a relief after the restraint and high-pressure of the class-room, for by no means one of the least advantages of Slöjd is that children generally enjoy it and--in happy ignorance of our designs upon them--look on it in the light of a pleasant pastime.

Indeed, when is a child so happy as when he is doing--or undoing--something with his hands? Is not the very existence of this instinct of activity an argument for the inclusion of hand-work in any system of genuine education, and a combination of our inhuman traditional methods of "sitting still"?

I, for my own part, am not sorry to remember that I got at least as much pleasure at school out of the few clumsy lopsided boats I managed, under the tuition of a school-fellow, to hack out with a pocket-knife, as from the whole bundle of my mental productions--clumsy and lopsided too, I make no doubt, and certainly not produced without very much labour and sorrow.

I would say then to parents and teachers: Give the best of your time to the mind by all means, especially to its training, but by all your hopes of the kingdom that is to come, do not neglect either the soul or the body! Nay, you shall reach both mind and soul through the body. By encouraging your children in a healthy bodily activity, you will at the same time be encouraging a healthy natural instinct. You will be likely to keep their mental activities the healthier, and you will stand a fair chance of stifling in their birth certain morbid physical conditions which, unstifled, may prove disastrous to body and mind and soul; by teaching them to use their hands and eyes intelligently, you will not only be giving them new interests and new resources, but you will also--as I have tried to show--teach them much in the way of self-reliance, observation, judgment and truthfulness. But you will be doing more than this. You will be affording them an opportunity of showing, before it is too late, where their special powers lie--in the head or in the hand--and helping them find an answer to that fateful question--that chance too often mis-answers for us--What shall I do with my life? You will moreover enable many a child to wipe away that galling reproach of stupidity which we are so prone to cast in the class-room upon any who do not happen to shine in our own particular line, though their hands, if they could only get the chance, might produce better work in a year than our brains in a life-time. You will be giving them a fuller understanding, and therefore a fuller pleasure in some of the commoner everyday things of life, and in the underlying principles of innumerable human productions; but, above all--and sometimes, when I look about me, I think that this gain alone should suffice to give Slöjd an honourable place in our schools--you will, if your methods are sound, and your own heart is right, give them respect and love for all honest hand-work and honest hand-workers, and so save them from that blight of shame which still fastens on many and many a human being at the thought of doing any honest work whatever, and on still more perhaps at the thought of working with their hands!

Ladies and Gentlemen, you must pardon me for saying in this connection that, in my opinion, one of the first steps towards making this world a happier place is to get men and women not only to say but to believe--and belief is practice--that no work that is essential to the continuance and well-being of humanity is below the dignity of the best or wisest of us, and further, that all work that is unpleasant, or repulsive, or involves danger, must, within certain obvious limits, and in the absence of perfected machinery, be shared unshirkingly by all.

To say now in a few words what I have said in so many, it is my opinion that Slöjd--a name I am prepared to apply to any carefully thought out system of educational hand-work, whether it comes to us from Europe, Asia, or America--it is my opinion that Slöjd has an irresistible claim to a place in every school in the country--whether primary or secondary, for boys or for girls--every school, that is, that aims at making the best possible of the precious human material entrusted to it, not for its own profit, or the profit of any individual or body of individuals, but for the profit of society as a whole.

I can hardly hope to have convinced everybody--if anybody--by this necessarily inadequate statement of my case, but I may say in conclusion that my opinions are chiefly based upon personal experience in several educational (and other) workshops, and may I suggest that my opponents, while cross-questioning me to their hearts' desire, delay to pronounce final judgment till they, too, have taken their turn at the bench.

Proofread by LNL, July, 2023