Of all those great debates we were exposed to at the university level, the only one I still find interesting concerns how we learn.  As a published author, I probably should be a big proponent of reading books as the ultimate way to learn, but I don’t actually believe that books are all that effective.  Given a choice for transmitting information, I would choose video in a heartbeat.  The reason video is so effective is that while books merely explain information, video forces you to DEMONSTRATE why you know something.

In between pure text and video are the various other forms of illustration--still pictures, drawings, graphs, mathematical formulas, etc.  In all these cases, however, these are only tools for transmitting findings between people.  They do NOT address the far more interesting question what methods work best for learning new information.

The most popular method for “creating” new knowledge in academia is the research paper.  Such thesis creation is required for most advanced degrees.  The bright and diligent scholar disappears into the bowls of a library and emerges many months later with a heavily footnoted paper that demonstrates she has examined the extant literature and fashioned this information into a unique perspective.

There are valid arguments that postulate that the research paper amounts to little more than academic hazing.  There is a reason why the overwhelming majority of Ph. D. theses disappear without a trace--it is almost impossible for a new paper to have more useful information than the sources cited.  There are a few exceptions to this grim reality, but without in most cases, the research paper is just intellectual entropy as every reinterpretation of the data becomes less useful than the original data itself.

Of course, this critique does not hold for papers that explain the findings of original research and experimentation.  So it is necessary to call the purely library-generated research papers some appropriate name to separate them from those papers based on experimentation.  So let’s call them “book reports” since that is what they are.

But if the book report is usually a waste of time and only small numbers of questions require full-blown scientific investigation and very few of us have access to laboratories or other investigative tools, the question becomes--how do the rest of us get out of the library stacks (or away from google)?

Jacob Bronowski argues in his book “The Ascent of Man” that “the hand is the cutting edge of the mind”--we learn new things when we teach our hands to do new things.  While this sort of belief can eventually lead to world-class scientists forced to plant rice by hand during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, such actions are usually just class resentment run amok.  As someone who once detassled corn I can tell you, the theoretical understanding of life doing such a job is learned in the first three hours.  On the other hand, a physicist could learn a great deal indeed by growing orchids.

Bronowski’s insight was derived from watching children learn, but as CATSCANs and other tools that could show the brain at work were perfected, it turned out that there is much evidence to prove he was correct--learning IS more effective when the hands are involved.

I didn’t wait for the scientific proof because Bronowski showed a way out of the library that was, at worst, harmless and at best, VERY useful.  I was probably not going to be good at something like growing orchids, but I could learn the skills necessary to build a house.  And so I did.  Bronowski was correct.  Learning those skills has affected the way I view the world.

It has been quite a while since I used my construction skills--actual construction is a young man’s game.  But I recently had the opportunity to engage in a small task that reminded me how much can be learned by using your hands.

We have a door that exits the house on the second floor.  It once lead to a wooden balcony that has since been destroyed by winter.  The interior door is a leaky multi-light affair so an additional storm door is really quite necessary.  The winters that had wrecked the balcony had now rotted out the bottom of the existing storm door.  So a replacement was needed.

This was a perfect-sized job for me.  Like cutting rafters or building stairs, hanging doors is one of the high-skill jobs on a construction site.  Anyone good enough to do this job correctly would have to charge $250 just to answer the phone and the door itself cost less than that.  Besides, I LIKE the challenge of hanging doors.

This is the sort of storm door one can purchase for slightly less than $200.  For that money you get the door, the frame that holds it in place, a glass insert that can be interchanged with a screen, and a bunch of hardware.

The first problem encountered was caused by the fact that the opening was non-standard.  The house was built in the 30s so some of today’s standards did not apply.  Moreover, this was an opening that had to fit under the eaves of a 1.5 storey Cape Cod.  So the original builders had framed an opening and when the door didn’t fit, they simply sliced 25 mm off the bottom.  Since the replacement door was aluminum, this was not an option.  I COULD have gotten a short door made by special order but this would have required a six week wait and more than doubled the price.

Since the trim pieces were substantial, I decided I could find 25 mm by carving away at the trim molding at the top.  This modification would prove the most messy and difficult part of the job and of course, was not part of the instructions that came with the door.  Because I wanted this modification to be very accurate, I did it with a router, a mortising bit, and a simple jig.

The instructions that came with the door were typical of the breed.  They were reasonably helpful if you already knew how to hang doors but were probably of little use to anyone who is confused by the instructions included in the typical IKEA box.

Construction parts are usually big and bulky so they tend not to be shipped very far.  Because of this, construction methods tend to be regionalized and the effects of globalization are not so much in evidence as with, for example, the textile industry.  Yet while the large parts of this storm door were produced nearby, the hardware was all made in China.

This is the sort of latch set that used to come with an aluminum door.

And this is the latch set that came from China with the new door.

I remember when such hardware cost more than $175 by itself.  And considering how dirty the industrial processes are to make brass, I must imagine that MOST of the cost savings were do to lax environmental standards.

Most doors I have installed in life have only one closing mechanism.  They used to cost about $25.  This door had TWO of them.

So by my calculations, my $200 door came with $225 worth of hardware.  I have a LOT of trouble with the effects of globalization but this example shows why these practices have a lot of support.  So even though I thought I was buying a locally-produced product, the boxes of hardware were anything but.

So what did my little project teach me?

  1. Lack of standardization in construction is still one of the reasons why housing is so expensive.  Well over half of this project was spent trying to make a standard-sized door fit a non-standard opening.
  1. Do it yourselfers are often encouraged to try projects that are WAY beyond their abilities to do well.  When I explained what I was going to do to a friend, her eyes flashed as she exclaimed “don’t even TRY to do this yourself--hire it done!”  She then told a gruesome story of how she and her husband tried to install a storm door--a project that had gone so badly it almost caused a divorce.  Folks often forget why construction work is usually classified as a skilled trade.
  1. Construction materials are usually considered the last bastion of localized production.  Yet even here, the forces of globalization can be found once the box is opened.
  1. There is something intensely gratify about installing a door that swings smoothly on its hinges and a lockset that snaps closed with a barely audible click.  Thorstein Veblen’s greatest book is called “The Instinct of Workmanship.”  Some consider this book “controversial” because humans are not supposed to have instincts.  My response is that the only people who don’t believe in the instinct of workmanship are those unfortunate enough not to have it.

I suppose it is possible to have learned all this by reading secondary sources.  But I doubt it.  Google may have found me statistics on the inroads the Chinese have made in the construction hardware market but I doubt if that would have made such an impact as opening boxes of hardware that were clearly better than I could have afforded before.

Beside, I got a nice new door out of this research that I clearly needed PLUS I got one of those “only real men can hang doors” ego boosts that was so enjoyable, I had to write about it.

Bronowski was right--the hand IS the cutting edge of the mind.

Originally posted to techno on Fri Jun 08, 2007 at 07:47 AM PDT.

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