Technological aptitude vs education.

This article was printed in the “Hobby Club“-magazine of May 1951, under redaction of Leonard de Vries. I kept the translation as close to the Dutch original as possible, so some sentences will probably appear somewhat strange to modernday readers.

–  Technological aptitude vs education  –

imageOur society, our economy and our education are suppressed by a problem, best described as the conflict between verbalists and technologists. Although every human is both a verbalist and a technologist. So we don’t have to think as a conflict between two enemy groups, ready to murder and exterminate each other, but as two facets of our aptitude and lifestyle, between which in this country never a satisfactory harmony is achieved.

The verbalist is the man, who lives by words, like the lawyer, the journalist, the correspondent, the politician. The technician on the other hand is the man who hammers and files, draws and constructs, cuts and planes: the carpenter, the surgeon, the metal worker, the constructor, the tailor, the sculptor, the engineer.

There are important groups in our society, in which the verbalism flourishes. Among the hundred members of parlement we find sixty masters of law, a whole group of board members of unions and teachers, all verbalists pur sang. The members of parlement speak well, handle a pen with ease, study reports, laws and decisions. But when we would handle this college a smoothing file, handplane, trowel or try square, I fear there wouldn’t be half a dozen congressmen who would know how to handle these technical tools.

Real technicians will not soon appear in the house of parlement. They are not appealed to such a talk-institute, they calmly work in a workshop or at a construction bureau, in machine room and lab. Although by this their influence on the countries’ politics is too shallow and gives them not enough arm length to push our land up in the industrial wealth advancements of the world.

Another significant problem is the reign of verbalism in our education system. When we visit hundred schools at random, everywhere we see teachers and students, who learn from books, or recite things they memorised. Books, themes, lessions, inkgulpers all around. Only in craft schools and technical schools we have a chance to see students, acquiring practical knowledge or skill.

The good studentOur teachers are for 90% verbalists and most of them work by a system, that wants to turn every student into a little Winkler Prins Encyclopedia. The boy reciting ates from history, makes a language assignment, imprints a lession about plants or animals, the girl that learns a French poem by heart, translates Homer or Ovidius, these are all students that will receive the praise of the teacher.

The boy who leaves his books for what they are, but builts a nice crane from Meccano, who after hours of struggle finds and repairs the defect in an outboard motor, makes a kite with special qualities, will find a total lack of admiration or understanding. It’s regarded as childs play, a waste of time and energy, on useless clumsiness. These young people would do better to se these wasted hours to re-emphasize on their knowledge of the German language or take a second look at the French Revolution. Isaäc Newton was known by his teachers as ‘a dull boy’ and one female teacher regarded Thomas Edison a moron!

Theory and practiceBut when we take a leap of ten years and look at those students when they have worked in practice, the teachers would be surprised. Then would become appearent that nobody would be memorizing anymore, once the main objective of lower and higher education, that 90% of the earlier memorised knowledge would be faded away; but that the contributions of these young workers to society have more in common with the Meccano crane, the diagnosis of the defect engine and the construction of kites, than with lists of dates from history or Greek grammar. It would be evident that our society can use thousands of engine mechanics, but only a few experts in Greek; that constructors of buildings and machines are needed, but that a clever person goes to an encyclopedia or book if he needs more fine insight in geography, botanics or history.

We have to think about the question: which goals are chased by higher education. The preschool teaches the key elements: reading, writing and maths, beside a minimum of general knowledge, the house wife, farmer, mailman, and sailor can’t go without. But the education of youngsters between 12 and 18, that’s what it’s all about.

Now, this higher education is resting on two pilars: the aptitude of the person on one side, and the needs of society on the other – and has to cherish both of these roots of existence entirely. We will show that our education system lacks a great deal in this.

The goals of higher education are not so hard to find. There are three.

  1. Enabelling the adolescent (growing youngster) to discover his gifts and talents, to hone them and let them grow. This is the primary task of the higher education and we see a concrete realisation in the smart student, who is good in maths or gets high grades for French or English; in the young craftsman, wo after a few years trade school and practice develops into a fine metal worker; in a student at the conservatory who wins the Prix de Rome; in a gifted architect, a talented teacher, a good surgeon, the smart lawyer.
  2. The second task of the higher education is: raising officers and sharpshooters, specialists in the army of society. Our ever more advancing methods of production and use, of fabrication and distribution, and of services between people, ask for a group of skilled crafts persons, that were almost unheard of in the time of Napoleon. This is reflected in the pattern maker, the electrician the construction worker, the engineer, the economist, the expert in farming, ship building, assurances, the chemist, the dentist, the x-ray man, the surgeon, the gynacologist, the accountant, the psychologist, etc. This ideal is most clearly demonstrated in the trade schools – from the winter farming workshops to courses for engineers, medicine or accountancy.
  3. The third goal of higher education is to pass on the accumulated knowledge of humanity to a future generation. This is a somewhat sharp formulation of the demand, that education in general must help to lighten people. This ideal is especially empathized in schools where future educators receive their training, who in time will instruct their students in the key elements, but also will have to teach them more general knowledge, in order to help the kid adapt easier to the demands of society, family, workplace and office. Schools that empathize on this cultural ideal are the gymnasium, the schools for arts and music and in the universities the faculties of literature and humanities. A specialist is somebody, who learns more and more about one particular smaller and smaller area, but in the third goal of education the Renaissance-ideal of the complete human lives on, who is scientific, philosopical, artistic and technically developed and to whom all humanities are familiar.

At two of these goals the current education system fails miserably. In schools the technical component is entirely ignored, left behind and put away. When a boy has incredible technical abilities, these will be completely masked by the school. Even at the more low-level schools these gifts wil l never surface. Although man can say the same for musical talent or a gift for sculpture, ballet or painting, but in our current industrial phase of history the technical abilities have a more important character. These abilities are apparent in all of us, and even stronger in 30% of the young population. It is an attach on the freedom of expression of adolescents that school has no place for these important functions, and doesn’t provide the means to let them flourish.

imageThe school also sins against the second goal of education, raising sharpshooters, specialists. In our psychologic practice over and over again we find discouraged gymnasium students, who feel like a dolphin in the desert at classical literature and who become energetic and happy after we get them over to craft school.

Our lacking in technical prestations, inventions, modern fabrication methods and industrial organisation compared to America, but even to Swiss, is so large that we desperately need every ounce of technical ability. Over the last 25 years almost half of the youngsters that left school found their way to the industry. In the decennia that lie ahead this will have to increase to 70%. It’s time to change the schools to adapt to these new changes in society. We could fool ourselves by thinking that the ideal of raising a kid is to become a school principal, classicus or theologist, but the Netherlands of 1975 will ask for engineers, bench workers, designers, inventors, CEO’s, foremen, managers, instrument makers, tool macers, mechanics, etc.

It would be preferable that every highschool will spent at least two afternoons a week on technical practica, where the youngsters, guided by electro-technical, mechanical and chemical experts can learn the basics of these scientific techniques. Not by memorizing standard lessions, but by taking machines apart and put them back together again, by making models of airplanes, radio’s, motorboats, by disecting compasses, microscopes, camera’s, telephone-equipment, etc. to become acquainted with the modern technological world.

There is no doubt that these afternoons would cost time and money, but viewed from the personal and social fundaments, for most students it would be the best spent afternoons of the week. Our education system roughly costs fl. 300 million of which half is thrown away, according to minister Rutten, because the system doesn’t corellate with the personal needs of the students. Lessions as just proposed would be more efficient. I would love to give up some hours of dumb memorising for this.

This is why the Hobby Club has my dearest sympathy, because they prove that the official institutions can never be dumb enough to show that the individual initiative will find a way to correct them. It is true that the Hobby Club can’t reach as many youngsters as nescessary, d the members don’t have all technological resources and information they need, but all the more the own initiative of the boys is called upon and they come to inventive improvisation. The things one discovers himself will be held ten times more intense than by reproducing what someone else said. Another striking advantage of the Hobby Club is, that it encourages contact between youngsters of different schools and backgrounds, by which specialist experts on various terrains find each other and can recharge the batteries of their enthusiasm.

Nevertheless I hope that this correction on a severe lack in our system of education may guide the authorities of education into a right direction.

Dr. J. Luning Prak,
Principal of the Institute for Psychology – The Hague

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