Popular Science Monthly/Volume 23/August 1883/Technical Education

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THE general increase in schools of design, technical schools, and like institutions, has created no little comment, and given rise, to some extent, to opposition.

It is a difficult matter to reconcile the differences between the opponents and those who favor this form of instruction, for the reason that the question, in a measure, is one of pecuniary interest to both parties.

There are many instances in which technical education may justly be claimed to be a necessity, and naturally, in those professions which demand a knowledge or a character of schooling, that can be more thoroughly conveyed by means of that which instructs in the theories of a craft or art, as distinct from its practice.

In the case of the architect, for example, nature may indicate the urgencies of the profession; it provides for the beautiful, for the attractive features, but the details it avoids; teachers must show the mechanical portions of the work, and instruct in the principles which make the building possible and form a support for the decorative exterior. The necessity of such teachings was recognized by early nations, and in their architecture and designing its value was taken into consideration, and its spirit must have existed among the early Aryans, as its materialized form did with the skilled and finished draughtsmen of Egypt and Greece.

We may easily realize the increased need of technical training to-day over the necessity of two thousand years ago. At that time, the artist himself did the work, the actual labor; he evolved the idea and executed it, the brain that conceived the thought guided the hand that gave that thought substance and shape. Every touch of the chisel imparted life, for the spirit of the worker went into the stone, and it was molded and shaped by the genius of the thinker. Now it is mechanical: the artist originates, others execute, and this execution must follow patterns, designs, plans. No scope is given the workman; he is bound by lines beyond which he dare not go, and his fancy, if he has any, serves naught in the creation of his subject; drawings control this creation, and the living translator of those drawings, from what was in the past an intelligent reasoner, has become in the present an automatic machine.

Disposing thus of a man's individuality, some means are essential to convey the thought of the designer into the hand of the worker, and customs have grown and laws have been adopted that will serve as a sort of mental telegraph between these two—laws which govern the flight of the artist's fancy and instruct the artisan in an standing of the designer's purposes. Taking this view of the situation, it is certainly necessary that talent should he technically tempered.

It is not to he expected that every one learning a trade will become an expert or an innovator; ability to comprehend the requirements of trades are developed in either the shop or the school, hut the regrets so often expressed by those who have grown up from apprentices for their lack of education evinces the limited possibilities of practical knowledge simply, and demonstrates, in a measure, the necessity for an early instruction in the theories, if one thinks to introduce improvements and progressions in his profession.

The want of education, with which most apprentices must contend, interferes in other ways with their progress. The master is apt, in many instances, to exaggerate the difficulties to be overcome, and enlarge upon the mysteries surrounding his work-bench. The doubt this would arouse in an unschooled mind might be fatal to success, and the superstition that there was something impossible for the apprentice to comprehend, is liable to remain with him as a drag-net to his future usefulness, trammel his ambition, and perhaps turn his abilities into a channel less profitable to himself and to the world.

Technical schools, adopting as they do a different course, impress the students with the comparative simplicity of business, and give them the feeling of ability to grasp and utilize the intricacies and peculiarities of the trades. That which is formidable to the uninstructed becomes a bagatelle to those familiar with the details and with those who have an intelligent theoretical acquaintance with the governing principles. It is true, this theoretical knowledge can not provide for all emergencies that are likely to occur in the workshops, but it lays a foundation which will aid the student, when those emergencies present themselves, in comprehending and overcoming the difficulty; and it is a question we would be loath to decide in the negative, whether or not a mechanic, who, after being educated in a technical school, had had a reasonable experience in a shop, would not find a readier and more effective remedy for an accident than one who had been brought up in a shop and lacked school training.

Another consideration worth noting is the comparatively short time during which a man improves his skill in the trade or art he may have adopted. The Technical Commission of Great Britain sets the period at from ten to fifteen years as a maximum, and this may be regarded as a reasonable estimate for the time at the end of which progress in the individual ceases; and, such being the case, it is proper to give at the outset all the helps toward developing talent that are attainable. Technical education may be one of these helps.

If it were possible to acquire theory and practice at one and the same time, its desirability would be indisputable, but, we imagine, this in its true sense is impracticable. The practice obtained in technical schools is not the real, genuine, unadulterated article, and it would be a dishonest teacher who would put forth any such claim. It is impossible to foresee, as we have said, all the necessities that arise, and are likely to arise, in the course of business experience, and they absolutely require, when they obtrude upon the regular course, the judgment of a mind that has been accustomed to coping with difficult situations where a failure to devise a remedy at once meant an utter failure of the entire work.

But one of these qualifications must, in the order of things, precede the other, and we are confronted with the question, Which shall it be?

Theory—that is, the comprehension and understanding of whatsoever we undertake—is the foundation upon which practice may build; theory will necessarily acquire the mechanical ability to put its ideas into shape by a reasonable amount of practice; but practice, though it be of years, does not by any means guarantee theoretical or even an intellectual appreciation of the results that labor accomplishes, and without this what can be expected from the mechanic? We certainly should not ask for improvements from a man who does not understand the foundation principles of the mechanical part of his work. Starting with a fairly good technical or theoretical education, one grapples with the problems of business more intelligently and, in most cases, more successfully. If one chance to become an employer, he can utilize the practice of his employes to demonstrate his theories, and often will this theorizing, and the thoughts created by an early technical education, suggest means for lightening, simplifying, and improving the labor that practice had failed to find an opportunity of modifying.