Man is a hand animal. The hands led the proto-human in becoming human. The hands should lead the young modern human to learn how best to develop his/her unique capabilities to prepare for a full and rich life. The modern person must be capable of constantly learning in order to meet the bewildering rate of change in the digital age. The hands can lead every individual down a fruitful path.
The public education system is in need of a revolution. In my old age looking back at my career as an educator my dream for the future is that young people will focus on maximizing their potential and thus have a better life for themselves and their children. Education is the vehicle for their betterment (according to a study by Georgetown University). Between late 2007 and early 2012 there was a net loss of 5,800,000 jobs for people with a high school education or less, basically the same number of jobs for people who had some college, and there was a gain of 2,200,000 for people who had graduated college or had higher degrees. The lesson is plain: become well educated or be condemned to penury and struggle.
There is a disconnect, however, between today’s educational system and the students. I worked in public education for many years and have seen this tragic reality up close and personal. Children have succeeded in slowing down their collective learning, with the quiet collusion of the staff. The system is by and large dysfunctional. I believe strongly that it is too Herculean an effort to modify the educational delivery system in any timely fashion, and I am constantly reinforced in this opinion by the flow of news surrounding the failures of the system. It will require a revolutionary approach to the problem to break through the protected interests and enable the children themselves to take advantage of whatever learning system they find in front of them.
My vehicle for accomplishing this miracle is the early study of string figures in an institutional setting beginning in the first grade. I taught a math class comprised exclusively of studying string figures in La Guardia High School for 20 years and was constantly amazed at how much the students benefited from this learning. I became interested in replicating this successful learning at earlier and earlier ages and have become convinced that the elementary school level is the proper introduction to their study.
The basis for all high-order, cognitive thinking in humans is founded upon two unique attributes in our physiology: A brain large and complex enough for symbolic abstraction in language and a hand capable enough for fine manipulation.
In short, the development of the human mind — increased size in grey matter, wired in a manner such for a predisposition towards logical, adaptive thinking — is not merely correlated with the development of man’s most intricate manipulator, but is in fact caused by it. We became smart because our hands allowed us to be so. The hand, capable of so much, taught the mind to think of the world as something that could be manipulated, and thus to care about the world and learn of it. Because we have the ability to change our environment, we pay attention to it in ways we wouldn’t otherwise do.
A child has to feel and understand he or she has grown into a competency that works. Telling them they’ve done it doesn’t work. Having them take tests to satisfy a management concern over the efficacy of the teachers doesn’t work. They must internalize a respect of self for becoming able to show their talents, talents they then will expect from themselves.
The intense interest level of all the young people I have introduced to string figures insures a successful learning. What is most important is the seeming difficulty of forming complex figures. Not one of my students failed to perform far above their expectations in all my teaching of string figures. This is a unique opportunity to shape a young person’s feelings about their intellectual abilities and about their capacity to learn. This opportunity should not be wasted nor underestimated.
There is a joy of discovery that each of my students has talked to me about. They are the ones I’ve relied upon to expand the sense of making string figures so it is as rich a system as I can make it. It is they who constantly surprised me with new methods of imagining figures, and it is for them that I am telling you what we jointly developed as a self-learning tool.
This tool teaches you how to learn and develop that focused, recording sense of mind that the pre-literate existence demanded as a discipline in order to survive. These societies had tools of training the mind to remember, and training it to order and develop the sense of these memories. They emphasized that one should become a repository of knowledge, an elder who remembers.
The systematic learning I and my students developed is based on only five figures to be learned thoroughly. Then a step by step investigation into introducing differences in the figures’ manufacture delight and convince the young person that they can indeed accomplish learning difficult and complex things. This experience of success was total in all my classes. I never had a student who failed to develop a sense of pride and accomplishment, and a growing realization that they could learn anything, that nothing was too hard to master.
The hands of children playing with string will lead us into the future. I witnessed for far too long the waste of human potential in this great country of ours. We must harness the potential of our children now or we shall become a has-been, a mere shell of what we were, and sometimes still are. We must invest our best efforts in our children.