Book review: The Wisdom of Our Hands

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Many people today live in a world of constant abstraction, immersed in our heads and our screens. In a society focused on academic credentials, white-collar work, social media and passive entertainment, we experience life as information, not reality. Our minds are no longer connected to our bodies, causing depression and spiritual and creative malaise. There is a deeper wisdom in working with your hands in the real world, which cultivates wholeness, creativity and joy.

Woodworking craftsman and educator Doug Stowe makes a passionate case for reintegrating mind and body in both education and life in his new book The Wisdom of Our Hands: Crafting, A Life, published by Linden Publishing.

Based on his 45 years as a woodworker and 25 years as a teacher of handcrafts, Stowe argues that human beings have a natural need to express themselves creatively through tangible work. The use of one’s hands and whole body to make physical things and reshape our surroundings promotes both physical and mental health and fosters a sense of mastery in both young and adult students.

Writing in a simple, dignified and masterly style drawn from his own experiences as a potter and woodworker, Stowe illustrates how working in traditional ways with traditional materials and tools creates habits of thought and action that train the mind to be more attentive and more genuinely intelligent. Selecting woods re- quires knowledge of each tree species and its particular qualities, which stimulates a greater interest in nature and living things than any biology text. Using traditional tools requires skill, concentration, discipline and coordination, training the mind and body to work together.

But the knowledge and skill required to do manual crafts has a more important goal than mere efficiency. The ability to create with one’s hands enhances one’s sense of agency and mastery, making the craftsperson a more complete and self-sufficient human being. This is a moral transformation, molding a person to a spirit of greater independence and responsibility. As Stowe puts it, “One of the important lessons learned through the acquisition of skilled hands is to look at your own experience as your source of authority rather than adhering to beliefs con- trived second or third hand.”

The connection between mastery of craft and mastery of self isn’t just a model for personal development for adults — Stowe believes this should be a model for how all young people should be taught in school. The mod- ern emphasis on college prep over vocational education disengages vulnerable young people from education and prevents the full educational development of even academically talented students. Like his recommendations on craftsmanship, Stowe’s views on education are based on tried experience. Throughout The Wisdom of Our Hands, Stowe illustrates his principles of education by citing his experiences with his students, demonstrating empirically the value of his teaching techniques. Manual crafts help students develop competence, strong self-esteem, discipline and character — and even helps students develop less important things like math and scientific skills.

The independent, self-reliant thinking fostered by a life of craftsmanship offers the opportunity and obligation to define one’s own values. Drawing on his experiences living and working in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, a town dedicated to handcrafts and arts, Stowe demonstrates how craft work can create community, forge deeper social bounds and foster a saner attitude about the value of human labor and material goods.

Written for everyone who wants to reconnect with the deep experience of the human body at work, The Wisdom of Our Hands is a quietly radical call to spiritual (and physical) action.

The Wisdom of Our Hands: Crafting, A Life Author: Doug Stowe
Publisher: Linden Publishing
Published: February 22, 2022
ISBN: 978-1-61035-501-8
6" × 9" paperback, 174 pages, 20 drawings and photos, index.
Available in e-book format

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