Occupy Yourself


From August through May, I spend a total of about 135 hours in the classroom with each of my five classes, a number that causes some non-teacher friends and acquaintances to cringe.

“How do you lesson plan for all that time?” One friend from college asked me one time when we were catching up over coffee. “And how do you keep teenagers occupied that whole time?”

It’s telling, I think, that we use the same verb to refer to educating kids that military commanders use when they talk about violently annexing enemy territory. The word “occupy” has an interesting spectrum of meanings, though. We get “occupation” from it, of course, in the sense of what one does to earn a living, which may or may not line up with one’s vocation or passion. We also derive “preoccupied” from it, a word that makes me think of someone whose attention is not immediately available to others (whether it’s because they’re absorbed in a Scrabble game or staring blankly into space while eating Pringles or lost in a memory).

If we dig up the word’s deepest roots, though, the Proto-Indo-European root “kap-”, we discover that “occupy” also means “to grasp.” Over centuries, this root grew into words like “capable,” “capture,” “haft,” “heave,” and, inexplicably, “sashay.” I like this ancient ancestor of “occupy,” because it’s of course a word we use with craftsmanship and tools. It suggests something essential about how learning and joinery alike depend on agency, engagement, and stretching out a hand for the right tools—and knowing how to use them.

As another school year is just three weeks away, I’ve been rereading John Dewey’s The School and Society, published in 1899, an influential early work in the progressive education movement that argues for a radically student-centered curriculum. Repelled by rote, formulaic teaching, Dewey championed an approach that genuinely connects what kids learn to the world outside the classroom. I haven’t read Dewey in a while, and this time around I’ve been struck by how frequently he refers to traditional handcraft, especially since he was writing in the thick of the Second Industrial Revolution. Early in the book, Dewey observes:

“Those of us who are here today need go back only one, two, or at most three generations, to find a time when the household was practically the center in which were carried on, or about which were clustered, all the typical forms of industrial occupation. The clothing worn was for the most part not only made in the house, but the members of the household were usually familiar with the shearing of the sheep, the carding and spinning of the wool, and the plying of the loom. Instead of pressing a button and flooding the house with electric light, the whole process of getting illumination was followed in its toilsome length… practically every member of the household had his own share in the work. The children, as they gained in strength and capacity, were gradually initiated into the mysteries of the several processes.

We cannot overlook the factors of discipline and of character-building involved in this: training in habits of order and of industry, and in the idea of responsibility, of obligation to do something, to produce something, in the world. There was always something which really needed to be done, and a real necessity that each member of the household should do his own part faithfully and in cooperation with others. Personalities which became effective in action were bred and tested in the medium of action. Again, we cannot overlook the importance for educational purposes of the close and intimate acquaintance got with nature at first hand, with real things and materials, with the actual processes of their manipulation, and the knowledge of their social necessities and uses. In all this there was continual training of observation, of ingenuity, constructive imagination, of logical thought, and of the sense of reality acquired through first-hand contact with actualities. The educative forces of the domestic spinning and weaving, of the saw-mill, the gristmill, the cooper shop, and the blacksmith forge, were continuously operative.”

Dewey might be overly romanticizing some aspects of the pre-electrified world, as is particularly evident when he talks about the strict gendered spheres of craft education later in the chapter. But when he later adds that “a certain discipline of the reasoning powers can be acquired through lessons in science and mathematics; but, after all, this is somewhat remote and shadowy compared with the training of attention and of judgment that is acquired in having to do things with a real motive behind and a real outcome ahead,” Dewey is anticipating that common gripe of the high school sophomore slumped in an Algebra II class with a stalactite of drool coming out of the corner of her mouth, wondering, when am I ever going to use this?

Every kid has every right to ask that question. As a teacher (and as a parent), if I can’t present a lesson in a way that it becomes “graspable”—whether for its utility or its beauty or just its intrinsic interesting-ness—I’m doing that young person a disservice. In a similar vein, a couple weeks ago, Joshua quoted an exceptional passage from Bill Coperthwaite in a blog post about the importance of taking kids into the shop to do “useful work.”

Many Mortise & Tenon readers have probably experienced the sensation of starting some work at the bench and immediately losing track of time as the hours speed by in one of Csíkszentmihályi’s “flow states.” If I do my job right, hopefully those 135 hours a year I teach each class feel the same way and, yes, occupy a fond place in my students’ memories as they go about their grown-up lives.

– Cameron Turner


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