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Shop class taught students to achieve things step by step, leading to goal-oriented challenges and happiness.

Published by Wall Street Journal on 11/16/23; written by Rich Cohen.

A David Letterman bit from years ago asked what a shop teacher should have to instill confidence:

A. skill as a draftsman

B. a working knowledge of all power tools

C. most of his fingers.

Those of us who came of age before the personal computer will understand the wisdom of the question. The grizzled shop teacher was as important to our education as any teacher of science or history. In science we learned the hidden truths. In history we learned the past. In wood shop—where my teacher was a mustachioed, quick-to-anger war vet named Mr. Robinson—we learned how the world was made.

I first enrolled in shop class in seventh grade. I entered the room in the basement of Central School in Glencoe, Ill., as if entering a redwood forest, a place of possibility and danger. Everywhere was glinting steel, the whir of spinning blades. We’d all heard the horror stories. How Clay McTavish looked away while at the circular saw and lost a pinkie in a shower of blood. How Damian Trumble bent stupidly close to find the item obstructing the jigsaw and lost the tip of his nose.

But there was joy in shop class, too, the pride of unveiling: the jewelry box stained just in time for Mother’s Day; the stool lifted up and carried away like a trophy; the bookcase tied like a five-point buck to the roof of the car and paraded through town.

In Mr. Robinson’s class, every rookie started with a choice of what to make: a spice rack or a toy clown that somersaulted along parallel bars. Either way, the process was the same: Design on paper, mark on wood, make big cuts with the circular saw, make small cuts with the jigsaw, hammer the pieces, sand the edges (first with coarse paper, then with fine), fill the nail holes, apply the stain, present to parent.

There was a great lesson in this, if you could see it: Any project, no matter how grand, can be achieved if you break it into steps, then tackle each step carefully. Mr. Robinson minted junior high Buddhists in the process. We lived in the moment, focused on the present, where the blade meets the wood and the sawdust flies.

It was in shop that I discovered that the world, the rooms in which we live, are entirely man-made, that some wood is better for burning than for building, that safety goggles are required for most things worth doing (wood working, stunt flying, skin diving), that a moment of distraction can lead to disfigurement and that danger is part of the joy.

It was in shop that I learned that someone who could hardly snap together two Legos could become competent at making things, as I made my stately march from spice rack to coffee table to glass-doored stereo cabinet. But I also learned humility. In advanced woodworking, where we could supposedly build anything, I told Mr. Robinson that I wanted to build a director’s chair, but he said no: “That would require a lot of lathe work, and I don’t trust you on the lathe.”

Shop class was once taught pretty much everywhere, but it’s been disappearing over the past few decades. “There are about 45,000 public high schools in the U.S. and, at best, there are only about 14,000 wood shop programs left in some form or another,” Mark Smith, the National Director of WoodLinks USA, told Woodshop News in 2017.