Our world operates on an evolved relationship between humans and machines, but the tricky part of that relationship is that many of the machines we rely upon most intimately function so far beyond a layman's capabilities that they might as well be magic.
DIY hackavists have a saying: You don't really "own" a device until you can fix it. But what if we expanded this principle to a global scale? Do we own our lives, our place in the economy, our roles in a rapidly changing culture? Are we confident participants, or anxious consumers? Do we run the things in our lives, or do the things in our lives run us?
There are all sorts of reasons why Americans have traditionally divided "mind work" and "hand work," but when it comes to how we educate our children, I think we're long past the time when this division was helpful. Every modern child should have a positive, engaged relationship with technology, even as we challenge them to think creatively and abstractly.
And I can't think of a better technology for beginning that real-world relationship between children and machines than the bicycle.
Most of the business I get though my Uptown Bike Repairs service comes from simple adjustments and maintenance tasks that I could teach just about anyone over the age of 10 to perform. But the crucial lesson isn't teaching students whether to turn the barrel-adjuster on their rear derailleur to the left or right. It's teaching them how springs and cables and rachets work to move your chain up and down a series of cogs to improve your mechanical advantage while riding under different conditions.
The other name for that is "Newtonian physics."
So yes,adding a hands-on "Bike Shop" class to the middle school curriculum would do double-duty for academics, but here's the bonus: When kids repack the the ball bearings in a demonstration bicycle's steering column, they learn principles that apply to all sorts of machines, AND they develop a new relationship with their own bike back home. No longer is it some mysterious, confusing, occasionally frustrating thing. Now it's a system.
Once you understand a system in principle, you relate to it creatively. You own it mentally. And once you own one machine mentally, the second machine comes more easily.
But why a bike? Because bikes are relevant. Children ride them. Teenagers customize them. Adults use them for work and pleasure and fitness. Most of the tools required for most bike maintenance can be found around most homes. And when you teach a child to fix her bike, you match the rewards of competence with the sense of freedom that a bike represents.
Maybe students in rural districts don't need this kind of education. I grew up country, and I think that's one reason why I've felt more naturally comfortable around tools than kids who grew up without access to them. But for city kids,many of whom will commute to work on a bike as adults, learning physics, shopcraft and a healthy relationship to technology is an academic trifecta.
It's not that complex a concept. But then again, neither is a derailleur.
Photos: Our neighbor Qua'vonta Washington, 12, of Charleston has been working on bikes for about two years. He knows his way around basic adjustments, flat fixes, etc.