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CHOPPING WOOD AND INTELLECTUAL CHARACTER

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Lucky me!
In a week I start a half-year sabbatical, my first since 1996 and a real privilege for which I will be eternally grateful to my school.
On the other side, I’ll be coming back to a new position—as yet to be fully defined—that will allow me even more flexibility to do the out-of-school work and writing that I have so enjoyed in the moonlight of recent years.
The downside is that I have been cleaning out my office of the last seven years—thirtysome years’ worth of tchotchkes and shelves full of books that overflowed whatever bricks and boards I could stack in small apartments past and migrated to school. I’m at 17 boxes and counting, and my spouse is already cranky about where they will fit in our house. Ah, well.
One object I ran across was a faded and slightly rumpled reproduction I made many years ago of a roadside readerboard sign that once graced the headquarters of some small business in New Hampshire. The message both intrigued me and offended me when I spotted it sometime in the 90s (as I recall), and I even made my own crude and eminently discardable version of the whole sign, purging the name and location of the original in an attempt at humor.
KIDS TODAY, the sign reads, WOULD BE BETTER IF THEY HAD TO CHOP WOOD TO KEEP THE TELEVISION GOING. Probably not an original sentiment; likely something from some talk radio rabble rouser.
But there is something oddly compelling in the message, and in an age of helicopter parents and increasingly easy access to astonishingly powerful technologies, one does wonder whether we’re making things so easy for kids that there is some detrimental consequence to what we think of as character. It often seems that for many students there isn’t a lot of quid required before they receive their pro quo. Maybe it would be better if they had to chop wood to power the devices that enrich and increasingly enable their lives.
It all kind of sounds like the “In my day we had to walk five miles to school in two feet of snow, uphill both ways” tales that our elders (this may actually include me; my children would have to chime in on this) are alleged to have been telling for generations; justificatory evidence of one’s superior moral character, hardened by experience.
If hardship automatically makes better people, the less affluent of our world have always been better people than those who haven’t had wintry treks to school. Intuitively, I think we’re all inclined to think that a certain amount of struggle yields up benefits in terms of commitment and engagement, possibly with a good dose of confidence and optimism thrown in.
Hence my fascination with the sign. Would a little more sweat equity be good for kids? Or is this slogan simply a facile swipe at a generation whose struggles and stresses are a little harder to see than long snowy roads? While it may contain a ring of homely truth, is the message just a way of putting down a whole generation whose lives and interests seem remote and self-centered to those who don’t spend their lives among youth?
My own answer hedges the bet. I think there is a certain self-satisfied contempt in the message, a good measure of holier-than-thou. But I also think it contains an even larger measure of confusion and even a soupçon of good intention—a wish that kids had more opportunities to contribute to their own well being.
We’ve managed to overschedule kids to the point that few children of our most ambitious middle and upper-middle class families would even have time for chopping wood. The exceptions, of course, would be if the chopping were the subject of an enrichment course in Colonial Problem-Solving at a local college, or perhaps part of a community service program at a shelter for the widows of Civil War re-enactors—something, perhaps, a kid could write a college essay about.
We’ve also been able, for better or for worse, to empower our kids with technology that makes mere television seem as outmoded as a Franklin stove. The world is at their fingertips, and even a few hours of babysitting a week can cover the cost of a smartphone and data plan. What used to make up the bulk of academic “content”—facts, figures, and formulas—is so readily at hand that schools have the luxury (is it, though?) of being able to focus on skills and understandings and habits of mind—the “21st-century” or “soft” skills that we believe will empower a generation who know not the feel of blisters from an afternoon with an axe or a splitting maul.
In the end I believe it’s a good thing that kids don’t have to chop wood to keep their televisions or iPads or Lumias going, and I’m glad that these tools are available and only wish that their availability and affordability were more universal. I don’t think we’ve lost much of substantive value by installing central heating or broadband; we have given ourselves the space to construct for our kids—and ourselves—a world in which intellectual character matters above all else—character of mind and spirit evidenced by curiosity, perseverance, generosity, and the general disposition to use one’s mind fully. I’d exalt this over the well-defined forearms of the woodchopper any day.
All the same, the occasional blister from a hard day’s labor isn’t a bad thing—for kids today or for old fogies like me.

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2 Comments
  1. Thanks, Fred, and amen! So many challenges of our times are far more complex and intellectually engaging than the physical tasks of yore. I think this is why for some people chopping wood–or training for triathlons or doing yoga–is about draining the mind to focus on more elemental things or simply to regroup and de-stress. Of course, we need to do this.

    Guess, like so many things, it’s all about finding the balance in our kids’ and our own lives. Forced woodchopping is no more a good or a bad thing in itself than forced mastery of Chapter 9 in the chemistry textbook or completing a “creative” art project where the expectations are laid out in stultifying detail. There just needs to be a compensatory element, whether it’s watching TV, reading a book, exploring a new programming language–or chopping wood for fun.

    Keep choppin!

  2. Awesome post Peter. Just as an FYI, I know many students who work really hard at developing mastery in one or more of the vast realms of information technology. The only blisters are likely to be on finger tips, but they are pushing themselves with abandon.

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