The evolution of boys at work: ‘Shop class’

The July National Geographic reports that scientists have discovered dozens of ancient stone hammers and anvils in Brazil’s Serra Da Capivara National Park.

These tools, some as old as 700 years, are made and used by capuchin monkeys. The monkeys use the hammers to smash fresh cashews against the anvil stones to help remove the bad-tasting husks. This discovery adds more evidence of the rare but not unknown use of tools by non-human primates.

The article led me down a stream of thought-provoking ideas. My journey began with the knowledge that, although the vast majority of primates don’t use tools at all, another capuchin group situated much farther south of the Serra Da Capivara monkeys also has been observed using tools. This southern group uses their tools in a different way and with different foods. Some scientists argue this is evidence that these “population-specific quirks” amount to different capuchin cultures.

A variety of cultures is one way we humans differ from other creatures, I used to believe.

I then wondered about those tool-making behaviors which have been passed down for generations. Older monkeys teach younger ones who then mature and teach a new generation. To me, that is basically what we call education which, again, I once assumed to be a strictly human endeavor.

Thinking of education led me to remember when I was in the seventh grade. That was when my buddies and I finally left the elementary and went to the big school. I was excited to take classes I had heard the older kids on the bus talk about. Classes like shop. The school called it “industrial arts” but that’s the way educators like to talk. To us kids it was “shop class.”

Only boys took shop which tells you how long ago I was in junior high. (Junior high is now referred to as “middle school.” Again, educatorspeak.) At my school, boys took shop and girls took home economics because those were the roles of American culture, or at least the sub-culture where I grew up, assumed for boys and girls in those days. I can’t say what exactly went on in “home ec” but on those rare occasions when I walked by the room it certainly smelled better than shop class.

In shop class we got to use hammers and nails, saws and glue and wood putty to make shelves and frames and desk caddies for pencils and pens which we would present to our parents who would cheerfully accept them and find a nice place to display them briefly until they would be removed to another more out-of-the-way area of the house.

We were taught a little bit about woodworking, a little bit about electricity and a little bit about other industrial arts. What I remember generally about the class is spending my time goofing around when I should have been paying attention. One specific memory I have is of someone opening the cover of a book, nailing it to the desk then closing it. The owner was quite surprised when the bell rang and he grabbed his things to rush out the door.

So often when I look back on my school days, I feel a great admiration for the teachers who had to put up with me and my friends. Think about it: a large echoing room filled with sharp tools and populated with noisy, mischievous adolescent boys. My grown-up self bows in deepest respect.

Searching the internet for information on these intelligent primates (I am not referring to the seventh graders), I learned details of their tool-making, their culture and their ability to pass on knowledge. I could picture the young monkeys learning from their elders how to make tools. As I browsed one page, I saw ads offering capuchin monkeys for sale. That made me sad.