It is the premise of this essay that if we teach our children that knives are weapons as we seem to be doing in society today, they will act accordingly and use knives as weapons both on the school grounds and also outside after school. And they will continue to think of knives as weapons when they grow up.
Things were not always thus as testified by John Fitzgerald last month when he told us about his Grandfather who gave him a knife at age 7. John's experience is almost mirrored by my own when I found a knife as a very young boy which was promptly confiscated by my mother with the caveat that I could have it back when I also was seven years of age. Sure enough when my seventh birthday rolled around I was duly presented with my knife which I promptly proceeded to repair as its pommel was broken, doubtless the reason for its having been discarded by the previous owner. My seventh birthday knife was accompanied by a stern warning and the extraction of a solemn promise that with said knife I would do no harm to no one either by action or omission. And that I was responsible for its use and care.
Had I lived in Sweden I might even have been encouraged to take my knife to school where upon I would have been shown how to use it properly and given full instruction on the various uses it might be put to. Of course in these enlightened times when the knife is simply looked on as a weapon and an intrinsically dangerous object by educators and parents alike such behavior would be looked on as bizarre or even foolhardy.
The reason my knife might have been given such a radically different emphasis in Sweden in those days was because of an educational system called Sloyd which was started in Finland in 1865 but developed and promoted worldwide and in particular in Sweden because of a committed Jewish educator named Otto Salomon, until the early 1900's. The term Sloyd originally meant skillful, specifically as it relates to woodworking craft. "The objects that the child makes are as useful as those made by the carpenter; but, unlike the work of the carpenter, the value of the child’s work does not exist in them, but in the child that made them."
Otto, with his benevolent uncle August Abrahamson, started a school for teachers in the 1870s which attracted would be educators from around the world. Even as late as the 1960's the Nääs school for teachers still existed.
The Educational objective of Sloyd was to built the character of the child and encourage moral behavior while fostering intelligence, and industriousness. The vehicle was manual education and the principal tool was the knife. Woodworking projects were designed to develop skill in easy stages starting from a child's personal experience and building outward from that.
Otto had ten principals which were imutable
1. To instil a taste for and an appreciation of work in general.
2. To create a respect for hard, honest, physical labour;
3. To develop independence and self-reliance.
4. To provide training in the habits of order, accuracy, cleanliness and neatness.
5. To train the eye to see accurately and to appreciate the sense of beauty in form.
6. To develop the sense of touch and to give general dexterity to the hands.
7. To inculcate the habits of attention, industry, perseverance and patience.
8. To promote the development of the body’s physical powers.
9. To acquire dexterity in the use of tools.
10. To execute precise work and to produce useful products.
The primary tool in Sloyd was the knife. To Salomon it was the tool that every boy was familiar with and conversant in its use. The child could use the knife without endangering himself or others as he was already familiar with it. He also believed that beauty of form was more accessible through the use of the knife as it is such a primal and basic implement with a broad multitude of applications. "The knife is the most important tool in educational sloyd. A carpenter almost never uses a knife—but the knife is the basic instrument of handicrafts. ‘Again we begin with the knife because we consider it the easiest tool for children to employ, since they have already been in the habit of using it." "
The knife is the slojder's indispensable and most important tool, and it is the first to be placed in the hands of a beginner. It is therefore important to select for slojd suitable knives of the best quality. The blade of the slojd knife should be made of good steel, about 4 inches long, and not more than 1 inch broad. The edge should be straight, and the two faces which form it should extend over the entire breadth of the blade. The back of the knife should not be more than 3/16 inch thick. The blade ought not to taper to a dagger-like point, but should terminate as is shown. The best angle for the edge is 15°. The other end of the blade terminates in a tang which slots into the handle.
In connection with this it should be noted, that if children are not accustomed, while receiving instruction, to use and to keep in order the tools used in ordinary life, it will be very difficult for them to manage them when they are older. It may be objected that if children use the ordinary knife, saw, axe, etc., they may easily hurt themselves; but this is quite as likely to happen with "toy tools." Besides, it is the duty of the teacher to insist that the children pay attention to the manner of using the tools, and use them in such a way that they do not hurt themselves."
Although sadly Otto's legacy is largely forgotten in today's world, aspects of his principals live on in modern vocational education. The idea that instruction should move from the familiar to the unfamiliar, that it should progress in incremental stages from the easy to hard, and from the real to the abstract are all aspects of modern educational practice. His emphasis on the use of the knife and on moral and personal responsibility appear to have been relegated to the dustbin of history. But Otto predicted that his system would eventually be discarded, "I see such a system as a casting mold—necessary during the process of casting, but that ought to be thrown away and dismantled when the work-of-art has been cast. I believe that the so-called ‘Nääs-system’ has had its day; it lies in the past, not in the present, still less in the future. While most of the principles have become so universal that they are stated to be self-evident, even by persons who certainly would not like to promote anything that comes out of Nääs, there is no further need for a ‘Nääs-system’ in the domain of manual training. May it die and may it rest in peace! I will not be found among the mourners."
Today in order to discourage our children from using knives we teach them that the knife is a dangerous object of little use except in the commission of a crime. As a result our children take this lesson seriously and use the knife accordingly. Now knife crime, although still a tiny fraction of overall knife use, is spiralling out of control and our reactionary response is to blame the implement not our policies. Its easy to blame the implement, failing that its also easy to blame the children, but since they are only doing as they are being taught, we must ultimately blame ourselves.
For more information please visit Otto Salomon