Chapter 1 1900 and Before - Education Programs that Support the Growth of Amateur Woodworking

Chapter 1:8:-- Part C The "Whittling Schools" Movement

Contemporaneous with this early technical training in the higher institutions, but providing work for boys at an earlier age level, were the "whittling" schools for city boys.

The pocket knife was the tool used to the largest extent.

The best known of these institutions, the Boston Whittling School, opened in 1872.



Sessions -- held during the winter months for boys of 12 to 16 years of age -- consisted of twenty-four lessons in whittling and wood carving.

The lessons were so arranged so that, economically, they achieved the greatest amount of instruction with the least expenditure of tools and materials.

The aim was to give general handiness, i.e., to give the students wholesome enjoyable work of a type that they would normally engage in, with the resulting value placed in the activity, instead of the tool skills learned.

As a rule, these schools were financed philanthropic men interested in such work. The Boston Whittling School is described in the following extract from a letter printed in the "Report of the Committee on Education of Rhode Island". This extract has to do with the first period of the school's life:

    BOSTON, 1877

    Our " whittling school " has opened its jackknife every winter for five years.

    Thirty or forty boys from 12 to 16 years of age have belonged to it, and with the aid of jig saws, a turning lathe, and a few simple tools they have made brackets, match boxes, small chests, checkerboards, and such trifling things. We have accommodated the school in our chapel and found no difficulty in accomplishing the little thus described with portable work benches, etc.

    The value of such a school is not in the amount of skill the boys attain to but in the bent it gives their leisure hours.

    The boys say they do six times as much work at home as they do at the school.

    Source: Letter of George L. Chaney to committee on education of the State of Rhode Island, public document, Appendix 12, "Report of the Committee on Education of Rhode Island", Acts, Resolves, and Reports of the General Assembly, January session, 1877, page 28, as cited by Charles Penney Coates, St. Louis Manual Training School, Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1923 page 50.

In the winter of 1876-77 the Whittling School united with the Industrial School, which had been conducted for two years in the Lincoln Building. The friends and supporters of both schools and others interested in the cause of industrial training formed an asso­ciation called the "Industrial Education Society." 7 This group of people developed and maintained the combined school. The city authorities gave the use of a ward room on Church Street, a location with which the Boston Whittling School is always connected in any reference to the school:

    The room was fitted up with workbenches, giving each boy a space for work 4 feet in length and 2.1 in width. Each bench was provided with a vise with common wooden jaws and an iron screw, etc.

    Thirty-two boys of from 12 to 16 were admitted, and as the school was open only in the evenings, some of them attended public schools in the daytime.

    A course of
    24 lessons in wood carving was prepared, with special reference to securing the greatest amount of instruction with the least expenditure for tools and materials.

    The object of the school was not to educate cabinetmakers or artisans of any special name, but to give boys an acquaintance with certain manipulations which would be equally useful in many different trades.

    Source : J. P. Wickersham, Rep. State Supt. of Schools. Pa., 1877, p. XXI, as cited by Charles Penney Coates, History of the Manual Training School of Washington University (St. Louis Manual Training School) Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1923, pages 50-51.

In connection with the rise of manual training, this report was frequently cited and/or quoted.

According to Coates, the Boston Whittling School should be considered as two schools,

not merely because of

the administrative change involved, but also because of the fundamental shift in the educational outlook of its projectors...

Following the claims in the 1877 letter of, the Boston Whittling School's goal was to give the students wholesome and enjoyable work of a type in which they would normally engage.

The value of the training rested, it is clear, in the activity and not in the tool process.

A major shift in the goal of the institition shifted, however, when the Boston Whittling School came under the influence of the Industrial Education Society.

Source: Report of the Massachusetts State Board of Education, 1875-1877, pages 193-94, as cited byCharles Penney Coates, History of the Manual Training School of Washington University (St. Louis Manual Training School) Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1923, page 50.

Impact of Russian System on the Whittling School Movement

When the Society learned the theories and practice of the Russian educator, Della Vos, the goals were changed to be instruction in the fundamental manipulations of tools .

The goal of the new venture was epitomized in the hackneyed catchwords, "instruction and not construction," a phrase attributed to Della Vos. According to Charles Penney Coates, History of the Manual Training School of Washington University (St. Louis Manual Training School) Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1923 page 51,

Its attitude changed from the practical to the theoretical. The school no longer called upon the constructive instinct of the child.

Obviously, Woodward's references to the Boston Whittling School had to do with the later stage. He did not appreciate the beginnings of the school which incorporated a notion of educational psychology entirely different from that proposed by him.

Due to his leadership, the theory outlined in the earlier account was rejected by the pioneers in the great manual-training movement that followed the educational conventions of the late eighties.

The student of recent educational literature will see at once that the fundamental principle of the early stage of the Boston Whittling School is the one now advocated.

The pupil is regarded as embodying a bundle of instincts the teacher must put to use.


Progressive Education Lauded the Whittling School Movement

In his 1920s monograph on pedagogy, the exponent of progressive education, Junius L. Merriam sets forth his theory of what the school curriculum should be -- copiously illustrated with descriptions of the experimental school that he conducted at the University of Missouri.

Education, Merriam says, is not to prepare boys and girls to be efficient workers in adult life, but to help them do better in all those wholesome activities in which they normally engage. He foresees the passing of the present divisions of school subject-matter:-- English, history, science, mathematics, etc.,.

Merriam's book was one of a growing list of experiments in the reconstruction of the elementary-school curriculum. For a critic, Merriam's book

represents perhaps as radical a departure from the conventional curriculum as any. It attempts a complete abandonment of the course of study organized in terms of the three R's or other conventional subjects, and the use of one in which the several features are distinguished only by the activities and attitudes of the pupils, the material being taken from the child's natural and social environment without intermediate organization as subject-matter. It would make the elementary-school work life, and not preparation for life, conceiving its purpose to be:

"To help boys and girls do better in all those wholesome activities in which they normally engage."

In Child Life and the Curriculum, Meriam sets forth all the charges against the traditional curriculum, explains the philosophy underlying the experiment he is conducting, and elaborates a set of principles for curriculum-making. He presents clearly and fully the workings of the University Elementary School, and gives a comparison of the attainments of pupils who have gone from it into high schools with those of other pupils in those high schools, indicating that mastery of the "tool" subjects may be quite as efficient when they are dealt with incidentally as phases of normal child-life activities as when they are made the object of direct attack.

He believes that the problems of minimum essentials and of motivation disappear entirely when the curriculum is selected directly from real life and is directed "to enabling boys and girls to be efficient in what they are now doing," and only secondarily to preparing them to be efficient later. The use of games in class work he condemns as the prostitution of the higher value to the lower, play being "a phase of life co-ordinate with work," the effectiveness of which the school must seek to promote. Measurement of educational results, he thinks, must be, like the curriculum itself, in terms of life-activities in normal settings, the standardization of accomplishment with reference to isolated abilities being not only not significant but even dangerous.

A review of the illustrative outlines of material used in observation, as given in the book, leads one to feel that underneath them there lies some more specific basis of selection than is stated in the author's "principles of curriculum making" -- that decision as to what phases of the child's environment shall receive the school's emphasis is not unrelated to the general preparation for adult activity, the principle which in spite of mistakes in application is responsible for the traditional curriculum. One may doubt if the author gives adequate consideration to the element of habituated response in education; may find some of his conclusions from well-known studies in the field of education surprising; and may be unwilling to see measurement deferred until after the attainment of seemingly impossible conditions. Nevertheless he will recognize in the book and the experiment it reports a contribution to the great effort to provide a curriculum more closely related to life, more fully recognizing the principle of self-activity, and more truly a part of normal childhood.


In his account of the Whittling School Movement Merriam argues that

Handwork may be assigned an important place in the curriculum because it is a wholesome activity in which most children normally engage. ... Modern educational theory, based on a better knowledge of the original nature of man, has accordingly returned to the early doctrine of the Boston Whittling School.

Handwork may also be so used at times, while whatever is made is of secondary value. Usually, however, things are made for the service they render. With proper training and even meager equipment boys and girls at home would have less leisure time because they would be busy in constructive work, or leisure time would be less wasteful by reason of handwork that would be done. Every boy should have some sort of shop at home, which may be equipped very meagerly at first; it will be better equipped when its value is discovered.

Source: J L. Meriam, Child Life and the Curriculum, New York, 1920, page 371; The School Review: A Journal of Secondary Education 28 1920, page 553; for some background on the Progressive Education movement, read the following: Reuben R Palm,"The Origins of Progressive Education", The Elementary School Journal 1941; William J Reese, "The origins of progressive education", History of Education Quarterly, 41 No 1, Spring 2001, pages 1-24.