Carpentry: a fable

Ronnie Brown

Recently I attended a carpentry course. It was pretty tough.

All the students (or almost all) were eager to learn. The first three weeks we learned to drill holes. We found out about curious kinds of drills, and how to make holes at odd angles. We got pretty good and accurate at drilling holes.

The next six weeks were involved in cutting wood. We used all kinds of saws, found out how they interacted with different kinds of wood, and learned to cut accurately and smoothly. I got pretty good at cutting wood.

The next four weeks we learned to plane wood. We used all kinds of planes, on many different kinds of wood. I got pretty good at planing wood.

'Joints' was a difficult course. It took eight weeks, and we learned many kinds of joints. I was quite good at making joints.

We did courses on other things too: sanding, turning, polishing, gluing, and so on.

Finally, we had an examination. We had to use all these skills. I did reasonably well, and came fifth in the class.

After the course ended, I went to see the Director. I told him I quite liked the course in a way, though some of the students were turned off by it all. But really, I said, I took the course because I wanted to make a table. He said that the top two or three went on to do things like that. I began to get mad. I said: 'What did we learn all that stuff for?' He said: 'Our course prepares people to make tables.' His face got larger and larger. He began to fill the room. I got scared. Then I woke up.

This was worrying. I discussed it with my colleagues. A psychiatrist took me back to my childhood. But no-one could explain why a professor of mathematics should have a nightmare like that.


School of Mathematics University of Wales Bangor Gwynedd LL57 1UT United Kingdom



Comments April, 2007:

The origin of this article was a visit I made to the home of Philip Higgins in the late 1960s. He had been attending a City and Guild Course on violin making and showed me a nice desktop drawer piece which had been made as an assessment for a City and Guild Cabinet Makers Course. Here we saw all the skills taught in the course put together. It all had to be right: the drawers should not stick, and so on. But the main feature was that the output was clear: a cabinet maker has to be able make this kind of thing.

So I wondered if there were any lessons to be drawn for mathematics! Such questions are pursued in other articles on the Popularisation and teaching page.

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