OUT ON THE FARM. Young farmers pose for a pcture before the Domestic Science building of Mexico Elementary School. Ca. 1920s.
In revamping the curriculum of Philippine schools, emphasis was given by American teachers to subjects called Industrial Education (for boys) and Domestic Science (for girls).
To improve the basic motor skills of children, schools started offering vocational and manual training, teaching boys handicrafts, carpentry, weaving, toymaking and gardening.
On the distaff side, girls were trained on home arts that included sewing and embroidery, marketing, cooking and house cleaning (yes, there is a systematic process in waxing and buffing floors!).
I was one of the hapless students of the 1960s who took up this required subject at Mabalacat Elementary School, which was quite an ordeal to finish. First, I was never handy with tools, and second, I hated gardening under the hot sun. I was eventually exempted from the subject because of my fragile health, but relief would not come easily; I was cross-posted in the Home Economics class of the girls where I ended up peddling snacks from room to room.
Students have no one to blame but Harvard graduate Fred W. Atkinson, who, in 1902, was appointed as General Superintendent of Public Instruction in the Philippine Islands by Gov, Gen. William Howard Taft. The 35 year old former high school principal quickly reformed the school system—imposing the use of English as the language of instruction, the importation of teachers (known today as Thomasites), and of course, the integration of industrial and domestic arts in the elementary level curriculum.
As was expected, the importance of the subject was lost on Filipino parents who sent their children to school—in the first place--to save them from a life of hard, manual labor. Unpopular with teachers, Atkinson was dismissed and was assessed as a failure. He was replaced by David Prescott Barrows who included the education-deprived barrios in his goal to develop a ‘cultured peasantry’. He re-skewed the emphasis on academic subjects, like Reading, Writing, Grammar and Spelling. He argued that manual training will only chain Filipinos to a life of peonage.
But of course, Industrial Arts continued to be taught in primary schools all the way to the 70s and 80s. Manual training subjects became less and less laborious, in the case of needlework and drafting. Garden plots gave way to new school wings and Home Economic buildings were either knocked down or adapted for re-use as spare classrooms, until the subject of practical home arts was no more.
My manual dexterity has not improved a bit in my use of a simple coping saw and hammer. Nor am I exactly a green thumb today. But for sure, the training has given me a better appreciation of the skills and efforts of people who use their hands for a living—from the anloagues, pandays, masons, cocineras, modistas and bordaderas of yesteryears to the talented Kapampangan furniture makers, culinary masters, potters, parol makers, and landscape gardeners of today. In their deft hands, they shape the future of our commercial, industrial and agricultural progress.