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The Maker Movement: Tinkering With the Idea That College Is for Everyone

Posted on May 15, 2014

By Mike Rose

The following is adapted from the new preface to “The Mind at Work,” a modern classic about education and labor.

My plumber, Billy, has just finished clearing my bathroom sink, and we are leaning against the counter, talking. Billy is in his early 40s, self-employed, a clean cut, thoughtful guy with heavily muscled forearms from all those years of turning a wrench. He and his wife of two years are closing on a house in the canyons, and he pulls out his cellphone to show me a few pictures, describing the wooded surroundings that we can’t see. He is deeply, quietly pleased. As was the case with many blue-collar workers, Billy felt the effects of the Great Recession; people put off repairs as long as they could and tamped down any thoughts of renovation. But toilets continue to clog, old pipes crack, tree roots wreak havoc on plumbing, so Billy had steady work, and it has picked up as the recession slowly eases. As long as his body holds out, there will be work for Billy to do.

Plumbing provides for Billy what the trades have long provided: a skill that enables you to make a living, have a degree of independence, in some cases be your own boss. Your trade gives you a recognized place in the social order and a personal sense of value—you can make and fix things, you are needed. You are also vulnerable, of course, to the slights of occupational status, to physical injury, to changes in technology, to fluctuations in the economy—construction workers were devastated during the recession. And your work is hard and often dirty. Billy does not relish crawling under houses.

When Billy was showing me the pictures of his new house, he noted that there were some things that needed repair, the kitchen particularly. But, he smiled, “I can do that. That’s what I do.” Billy will be taking his skill home, his handiwork evident on the finish on the cabinets, the fixtures on the sink.


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Over the last 10 years or so, increasing numbers of Americans have been seeking the satisfaction that will come naturally to Billy as he works on his house. We seem to have discovered the pleasures of working with our hands—or at least of using products that are handmade or manufactured on a small scale, artisanal, locally produced. There is a Makers Movement and Make magazine, and a related Do It Yourself movement. In education, there is growing interest in making and “tinkering” to foster, in one organization’s words, “imagination, play, creativity, and learning.” As opposed to some anti-technology expressions of this hands-on spirit in the modern West, our era’s movement embraces technology—computers and digital media are as much a part of the Makers Movement as woodworking and quilting. The same holds for education, which wants to draw on young people’s involvement in computer technology and social media.

For some, making, tinkering, fixing are part of a political philosophy and a social movement: a reaction to corporate domination and mass production. In education, making and tinkering are a reaction to traditional school-based learning, textbooks, fixed lessons and standardized testing—intensified in our high-stakes accountability, No Child Left Behind era.

Though ours has a contemporary cast to it, movements such as making and tinkering are not new. During the 19th century high-water mark of the Industrial Revolution, there were similar reactions and a desire to return to craft and the work of the hand, epitomized in England by William Morris and manifest in the United States by the turn-of-the-century Arts and Crafts Movement, one legacy of which is the Craftsman style house. In education as well, various European and American educators sought release from the drudgery and disconnection of the typical school lesson built on textbooks and recitation. There was an attempt to include in all children’s curriculum tasks drawn from the farm and the skilled trades. “Throw in the fire,” proclaimed one passionate advocate, “those modern instruments of torture, the spelling and defining books.” So our discovery of making and tinkering is a rediscovery, one that seems to emerge in reaction to social and economic trends that leave Americans yearning to use their hands, to manipulate tools and feel wood or metal, to wear or eat or look at things that didn’t zip down a conveyor belt.

By and large, the Makers Movement is a middle-class movement. Working-class folk have not had the luxury of discovering making and tinkering; they’ve been doing it all their lives to survive—and creating exchange networks to facilitate it. Somebody across the street or down the road is a mechanic, or is wise about home remedies, or does tile work, and you can swap your own skills and services for that expertise.

Turning this social class perspective to our schools, educational researcher Shirin Vossoughi points out that making and tinkering have been central to vocational education for a century, yet they never carried the status or buzz they do now that they are more the domain of middle-class kids—and include sexy digital technology. To their credit, there are educators—and this includes Vossoughi and others at the San Francisco-based Exploratorium for which she works—who are trying to draw from the best of the making and tinkering approach for low-income children.

If issues of social class are relevant to the Makers Movement, they are central to a current educational policy debate involving education and work: Should we as a society be encouraging all young people into postsecondary education or should we be encouraging some to enter after high school the world of work? And here I would like to bring back my plumber, Billy, for he could be the poster boy for one side of this debate.

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