Last week I made an unscheduled visit to the repair center - University Health Services - to get my ear fixed. After removing a large object – said to be wax and hair – from my ear, the nurse practitioner and I chatted for a few minutes. Knowing I write about how we think, she asked me some questions. One of them surprised me.
Why can’t mechanics read?
I have been asked many things, but that one was new to me. My first thought was, Is this one of those “have you stopped beating your wife yet?” questions. I quickly concluded it wasn’t. She was genuinely curious. I asked her to elaborate.
The little wheels in my head began spinning as she described the mechanics she knows, her cars, and her friend at Caterpillar Diesel School.
I was able to define the parameters of her question a little better over the next few minutes:
First of all, she was referring to males in the auto trade. Either she didn’t know any female mechanics or those she does know, read.
Second, all the mechanics in question are extraordinarily talented with machines. They fix things for love, not just a job that pays more than Burger King. She wasn’t referring to the kids at the quick lube.
Third, it’s not that these mechanics can’t read. It’s what they read. They read Popular Mechanics but won’t read a novel like Jane Austen. They won’t read instructions on a computer monitor but can learn anything by standing next to a master.
Fourth, by their own admission, many of these mechanics have some kind of learning disability, like dyslexia or even Asperger’s.
Taken together, those points led to her question, why can’t mechanics read? She explained that a friend teaches at the Caterpillar School. According to him, when they moved from hands-on instruction in the shop to on-screen instruction in the classroom, the class foundered. Half the students dropped out, and those that remained did less well, in terms of acquiring real-world skills.
She took that to mean that a weakness in reading comprehension or ability was part and parcel of having a great “mechanic brain.” Could she be right? I really have no idea. I hope a decent number of mechanics will chime in with their thoughts on the matter.
I do know that I am a mechanic, I have Asperger’s, and I learn best by experimentation rather than by studying textbooks. And I read technical stuff and nonfiction almost exclusively. I don’t read novels for entertainment.
If I were choosing an auto shop class, I am sure I’d pick the hands-on one over the computer based one. In fact, until she talked about it, I never even thought there was any other way to teach mechanics.
There may well be some neurological tie here. Perhaps the brain wiring that makes a natural mechanic and the wiring that makes a lover of literature are indeed mutually exclusive. I don’t know. Does anyone?
Some of us – like me - are primarily visual learners. We learn best by picking a thing up, twisting it, studying it, and even taking it apart. That’s a key skill for a top mechanic. If that’s how we are, it does not mean we can’t read; it just means we learn by doing when it comes to solid mechanical things.
Do our schools accommodate learners like that? I don’t think they do.
Our schools tend to focus on learning from the pages of a book or off a computer screen. That may be fine for learning calculus or figuring out how to trade stocks, but it won’t get your car fixed, nor will it clear your clogged drain.
I think our educational system has essentially abandoned a whole class of hands-on learners in pursuit of a white-collar-everyone dream where all the learning comes from books and every graduate goes to work at a computer screen. In pursuit of that goal, we have essentially lost a whole generation of kids from the trade workforce.
If they are forced into the white-collar book-learning world, they suffer. And meanwhile, there’s no one new to wire the house, fix the drain, or repair the car.
Can our schools embrace hands-on learning alongside paper learning? I think there’s a place for both, and society desperately needs those young people with hands on skills and a love of machines.
I never before considered that dilemma in this light.
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
Posted by John Elder Robison at 9:48 PM