“Importance of Critical Thinking” or “Downfall of a Generation”

There is no denying that “The Google Generation” is sadly lacking in the ability to think abstractly or critically, as a whole (there are, obviously, exceptions to every rule). Ask my wife about how some of her students react to the question, “What causes a rainbow? Where does your tap water come from? Where does your sewer water go? What are hambergers made out of? What is the cubed root of pi?” These and so many other questions are answered with a grunt, a shrug, or abject silence. I’ve had people tell me that Hambergers are made of ham. I’ve had students ask me why icebergs float. I’ve had grownups not believe that dark colours absorb more heat. This isn’t just in small towns or the uneducated, but many, many people have lost the desire to learn and the curiosity to ask “Why” and “how” to everything that they see. It makes me sad.

Niel Degrasse Tyson said that all children are born curious, and the best way to KEEP Them curious is to get the hell our of their way and let them learn and play. Not that I have ANY room to criticize the man, I couldn’t even if I wanted to on this issue. The man is also a supporter of the notion that we should not trust anything, or anyone. We have to question everything; question everyone. Make sure that our deepest darkest desires for knowledge are answered with the most spectacularly mind-altering truths we can discover. That’s the purpose behind science, and that’s why he’s a scientist. I love and admire this man; truly one of my role models and heroes.

I’m still fighting with my CNC router, I lack some tools that I’m having a hard time improvising, but when some young people hear that I have a ROBOT that can carve wood using a router, their eyes delight. They think that I’ve got the Terminator chained to a wall of my garage, but I try to keep that disappointment away from their curiousity and roll with it as long as I can. I’ve even been known to play along with their misconceptions, agreeing where necessary and just NOT objecting where possible, and watching their imaginations run wild; only correcting them when essential. I’m a bastard that way. What boggles my mind is that many of them keep coming back! Anyway, one kid, tends to linger about my shop and has offered a lot of volunteer time with me to hang out. The look on his face when I told him I’d tutor him in Trig, Geometry and Algebra as a condition to him working in my shop, and his attendance/performance in school will determine how long he can play was almost worth me saying it twice. I really am a terrible person.

Torturing teenagers aside, it remains a dismal truth that so many of them are so inundated by information and The Lord on High, Google, has all the answers that you could ever want, but the world of copy-and-paste has actually increased the amount of paper used in our society by a factor of ten, or more. Young people (many of them) aren’t reading, they are observing youtube videos and pictures of cats on tricycles, and not taking in information to make them smarter, just the cheap thrills. They are indulging on the junk-food of the information age, cheap and shallow data. “They” (the general average, and sometimes worse case, of which I am referring) are not exploring, rooting around under rocks to find ant nests, they are not building tree forts or exploring swamps and back woods. They are not exercising their immune systems, minds and muscles. They are becoming cybornetic automatons fed an undernourished diet of smartphone applications and microwavable dinners. This is not a healthy lifestyle and I weep for the future.

Speaking with young people about crafts, arts and trades, so many of them will look for what I call “kit answers”. The wheel fell off your toy? Go buy a new toy. Don’t dare fix it, don’t make it better, don’t make a NEW Toy yourself to replace the old one… go spend a couple of bucks to buy another piece of junk that will require replacing in under a season. That’s not how I was raised, and I’ll bet it’s not how many other 30-somethings and older were raised, either.

I look at kids like Alex Harris (of This Woodwork, click on the pic to go to his site, click on his name to go to youtube) and you’ll see what I mean. This kid is the best kind of brilliant. He’s a flippin’ genius in the wood shop, he has improvisation skills that are second to none, and not only is he the single most talented woodworker of his age that I’ve ever come across, but he’s applying himself as an Engineering student! He offers his expertise free of charge on youtube and has delighted many woodworkers, including myself. He’s an inspiration to all the children, teens and young adults (not to mention many grown-ups), not least of which myself, and he’s even a friendly and charming human being, to boot. The image above was from a papers tray video that he uploaded February 8th, 2014 and really goes to show how a factory-formed solution that could have cost him ten or twenty bucks was ignored and his own, purpose-built solution was made by hand, with sufficient planning and cunning.

This is my point, it can be done. So many children/youth/teens are experiencing a self-fulfilling prophesy. They are convinced they are dumb, so they live a simple life and do not challenge themselves. Your brain is like any other organ of your body, without moderate exercise it will atrophy. Some people these days, lacking the desire to learn or think for themselves, make life so much harder.

Car is broke? Mechanic. Toilet won’t flush? Plumber. Leaky roof? Carpenter. Give me a BREAK! I am not a gear-head, I am far from interested in mechanics, but when I feel a rhythmic whump-whump-whump as I apply breaking pressure, it’s the rotor. When the same action squeaks, you need new breaks. Engine gets hot? Check oil or radiator fluid. Transmission slips while accelerating? Check Trans fluid. This is not proverbial rocket science, it’s a matter of taking the time to answer a challenge with a solution and remembering it for the future. Hell, I’ve had neighbors come over, old codgers who’ve worked their whole lives and lived very independently on these tiny isolated island communities, visit my shop when they see me around and ask me questions. For example; “I got a leaky roof and I can’t fix it. I’ve tried this, that and the other thing. Any ideas?” Between the two of us, we usually find a solution. I believe that no challenge is too large to resolve, and no mess is too desperate to clean up. All these problems are no longer problems at all if you are able to see the challenge through the lens of a critical thinker, and examine each component part in an itinerant manner. Like engines, It’s not really one hella-complex machine that requires college to figure out, it’s a thousand or ten-thousand small, really quite simple things that work in concert. You don’t need to know how to machine the parts to know how they work together. Spark and fuel moves one of many piston that moves the cam shaft that eventually moves the tires by way of the transmission. I don’t need to know if it’s a diesel or a gasoline engine, both facilitate the same function, and many problems can be solved by breaking complex systems down.

I’ll contort this back to woodworking, probably the reason you’re here anyway. Making an Adirondack Chair is not hard, making a 2×4 laminated woodworking bench is not ludicrous, making screw-advance box-jig table sled for a contractors saw is not impossible. It takes planning and cunning. Draw it up, plan each part, fabricate each part, assemble. Not rocket science, though it does take practice like anything else. My father is a friggin’ genius when it comes to taking a challenge, a rubber band, a bent nail, a few wood scraps and building you a playground. It’s really terrifying what that man can do with virtually nothing. It’s really inspiring for him to have said to me, “Your [garage] floor’s got a little sag by the walls. When I visit in the spring, we’ll jack up the entire building and shim all the posts, one by one. That’ll correct that inch-or-two. You’ll have a nice floor, then.” Not only is the man nearly 70 years old, but he can outperform me at my best, while running a fever! It’s infuriating! He’ll ease my frustration with his practiced, calming tone, “I’ve got 40 years of practice over you, working with much fewer resources, in much more dire times. You’ll learn.” He taught me so much, that rushing into a project will often result in disaster, but sitting down in front of your dilemma, in a lawn chair, with a cup of tea and some inspiring conversation, can often mend a challenge before it becomes a crisis.

I don’t ever want to hear two things in my shop, EVAR! Number one: “I can’t”. The first time I hear that come out of a student, apprentice, etc, I find a new student, apprentice, etc. Once I get around to getting the parts to finish the electronics component of my CNC router, I’ll make a series of rule plaques, each with a shop rule and will add them as each need arises (Sort of like the Educational degrees from HP, GOD I hated Umbridge; good idea though). The second is “I’m Bored.” I once read an article about a college principle going on a rant about how society owes teenagers NOTHING (see image to the right). You’re bored? There’s the broom. There’s a can of paint and a brush. There’s some sandpaper. This world is full of possibilities, and there is ever an excuse for boredom, just like the article clipping indicates.

I’ve got so many ideas for signs and rules, in the effort to help teach good practices and good intellectual processes in my shop. This one is among my favorites. Considering how much of a disaster my first effort at dovetails turned out to be, I think this is good advice! (Also to mark the waste before you start sawing).

One of the major challenges that inhibits the careful, meticulous, complete planning of any project is rushing. What’s the damned hurry? Anything worth doing is worth doing well (or OVER-doing, if you ask my wife about my habits), and if you rush the project you’ll either end up doing it twice, or forever living with the consequences of the decision. I’ve got enough regrets in life, and not properly cleaning up the cheeks of my tenons for a close fit, or properly smoothing my dovetail walls for a snug joint is not a decision I want haunting me every time I open the drawer I’ve poorly built. It’s not a matter of perfectionism, it’s a matter of professionalism, and pride in your work. It’s an extension of who you are and what you’re spending your time on. Let each project speak to your love of the job, and don’t let the heart of the hobby become the doldrums of the duties. There’s not enough love in the world, at least fill your shop with it.

I’ve ranted long enough, I think. My point remains clear, too many people (and many of those are young people) are spoiled by a world of gratuitous gratification, deluge of data and abundance of apathy. I hope to teach some of those in my neck-of-the-woods the value of hand tools, of taking your time, ensuring every joint is flush, every board is straight and every cut is true. It can be amazingly therapeutic and confidence-building sitting down after a well-planned project comes together and you can say, “I built that, I planned it and did that myself.”

I am eager to see that spark of delight students/helpers/friends and let the word spread of the joys to be found in a job well done.


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