Smart hands

Paul Epp
Paul Epp

Intelligence from making things

When we use the term intelligence, it is very likely that we are talking about mental functioning. The IQ tests that we will have taken will have been addressed to how our minds work. Our cerebral abilities will have been measured. And, as a consequence, we will have gained a sense of how smart we are.

But should we limit our understanding in such a narrow way? I doubt it, and most other people reflexively do as well. Our lives have shown us that things are not so simple. Howard Gardner, in his seminal 1983 book, Frames of Mind, promoted the idea of multiple intelligences, which has been well respected. We all recognize musical intelligence, spatial intelligence, linguistic intelligence and so on.

What is intelligence?

I comfort myself, as we probably all do, that I am intelligent in some ways even though I seem to be completely lacking in any intelligence for music (as one example among many). A further acknowledgement of the narrowness of our prevailing view is that we academics joke that, although the A students will end up teaching, it will be the C students that hire the B students and who actually get things done and who make the serious money.

But even with this insight, we still seem to revert to a bias towards the cerebral when we think of intelligence. This has been reinforced by theories of learning, most prominent among which is Bloom’s taxonomy, which outlines a progression of cognitive function leading towards creativity, which is typically acknowledged by our culture as our highest expression of intelligence.

Remembering, understanding, applying and so on, up to evaluation and creation. Although it is typically overlooked, even Bloom recognized that, in addition to our cognitive (mental) functions, our progress in learning (and functioning) is influenced by the psychomotor (physical) and the affective (emotional) domains as well.

As someone who has devoted much of his life to the making of things, I find this to be both interesting and even important. As a primary school student, I found book learning to be fairly easy. Although, as a boy, where I really wanted to excel was in sports. But it was in those infrequent situations that involved making things that I found myself to be the most able. I recognized that I was better at this sort of thing than my classmates. Why was that and what did it mean, beyond its eventual influence on the direction of my life?

I’ve come to think of the experience of the tangible and the manipulation of the tactile to be forms of intelligence. Our hands can be smart and they can inform our brains. When we do things like making things, there is a dialogue between our fingers and our eyes and our brains. Sometimes, it is as if our hands have minds of their own. We (they) do things that surprise us. We discover things through doing things, sometimes even feeling as though we were being lead along.

Hand-made smarts

I recently read a very interesting book on the Industrial Revolution: The Most Powerful Idea in the World, by William Rosen. And the most interesting thing, to me, was the incidence of the major discoveries of this revolution to have come about by men who were good at making things. One of those giants was Henry Maudsley who vastly improved the lathe, making it of iron and adding an accurate leadscrew, among many other inventions.

Those of us with an imagination directed towards the making of things will recognize the importance of the lathe, and of machine screws, in the evolution of ever-more complex tools and the artifacts that tools can produce. But this highly influential inventor had his origins in his own making of things. One of his workmen observed “it was a pleasure to see him handle a tool of any kind, but he was quite splendid with an 18-inch file.” I’m sure that there is a connection.

We talk about clever hands and even of the perils of idle hands, which is a recognition of their importance, without quite giving them the prestige that they deserve. Maybe we ought to change that.

Paul Epp is a professor at OCAD University and chair of its Industrial Design Department.


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