Sloyd in Ancient Greece

Sloyd in Ancient Greece

In 1865, Uno Cygnaeus launched a revolution in handicraft education with the invention of Slöjd, now known to English speakers as sloyd. Cygnaeus (1810-1888) was a Finnish clergyman with a special interest in education. He is known to have studied educational reformers Johann Pestalozzi and Friedrich Fröbel, who inspired him to develop his own philosophy of education. Core to his philosophy was the notion that a structured and progressive program of handicraft education should be made available to all children. Thus, Slöjd was born.

Cygnaeus’ invention of sloyd involves a sequence of study which with begins with paper modeling, progresses to cardboard modeling, and ultimately leads to woodcraft. Many have naturally assumed that the concept and framework of sloyd originated with Cygnaeus himself, and have theorized that he derived his ideas from his reverent contemplation of the world around him and the needs and nature of children as they are. As an ordained priest, his thought progressed under the guiding hand of Gospel revelation, and sloyd has been seen as an example of how a sanctified imagination can actually bring new ideas and practices to education.

Recently, however, this narrative of Cygnaeus and the development of sloyd has been challenged. New evidence has been proposed to suggest that Cygnaeus was not offering an innovation and in fact was not even claiming to have made a discovery of any kind. Rather, it is now being suggested that Cygnaeus was actually reaching to the past, and attempting to bring forward a classical concept of educational handcrafts and revitalize it for the modern era.

While evidence for this new interpretation of Cygnaeus and the classical tradition is admittedly a bit scanty, its plausibility is greatly supported by some overarching principles commonly accepted by the Christian educational community. The first is the basic notion that true invention is impossible, since “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). The second is the general aphorism that “if it is good, it is classical.” Since classical education is, by definition, the study of the true, the good, and the beautiful, if sloyd has these qualities, then it is ipso facto classical.

Guided by these commonly accepted philosophical notions, recent investigation has gradually been confirming the hypothesis that Cygnaeus actually reached back to the classical past and there discovered sloyd. Confirmation of this hypothesis has been greatly aided by recent advances in archeological techniques. The ability to salvage papyrus materials embedded in rock has enabled researches to discover the lost tools of handicraft learning. These studies point to the existence of the practice of “papyrus folding,” which researchers are calling σλὸἱδ (Gk. “sloid,” a rough transliteration of Fin. Slöjd).

The papyrus discovery relates to a set of paper-like materials apparently cut or folded into geometric shapes. “The similarities to modern sloyd are remarkable,” says Julian Michelangelo of the Association for Classical Education Research (ACER). “We chose the name σλὸἱδ because of these obvious correspondences to the classical work of Uno Cygnaeus.” Michelangelo explains:

As is well-known, the quadrivium is arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. These four subjects, along with the trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, formed the basis of education in the classical era. We believe that Euclid, the founder of geometry, sometimes used models to illustrate his conceptions. These models were presumably done on papyrus. If a sheet of papyrus was folded in the shape of a triangle, then we have it—σλὸἱδ—the forerunner of modern sloyd.

One question with Michelangelo’s theory is that geometry, as part of the quadrivium, would have been geared towards older students, whereas Cygnaeus’ paper sloyd was directed to younger students. Simon Raphael, also of ACER, resolves this tension:

The “ages and stages” element of modern classical education doesn’t really reflect how classical education was practiced throughout history. While there were stages for sure, they weren’t based on the trivium and quadrivium. Rather, there was a “musical” stage followed by a “liberal arts” stage. The seven liberal arts all had an expression during the musical stage. So while this is hard for some modern classical education practitioners to grasp, the fact of the matter is, that when children in Ancient Greece were folding papyrus, they were entering into the quadrivium.

In the past several months, Michelangelo and the ACER have attempted to introduce all levels of classical sloyd into mainstream classical schools. While this aspect of handicraft has been welcomed by some schools, others have been quite resistant. Michelangelo explains:

There is a concern among classical education leaders that the curriculum is becoming too broad. A liberal arts education is supposed to focus on seven things—the subjects of the trivium and the quadrivium. Classical school is not a “cafeteria” where students learn about everything from basket-weaving to world geography. They are looking at sloyd/Slöjd/σλὸἱδ as just one more dish in an already overloaded buffet.

I recently had the chance to catch up with Michelangelo and he explained to me how he is overcoming this challenge from classical schools:

Our strategy for dealing with this has been to point out that sloyd is really not a separate subject. One of the ways we know sloyd is classical is because it is essentially geometry. So I tell the principals and teachers to just not even consider it a separate subject. We all know that geometry is more than just Euclidean proofs. If we can add in other forms of geometry such as analysis of shapes, why not add in the three-dimensional visualization of geometry with paper sloyd?

The work of ACER in this area has led to increased interest in sloyd, and many classical educators are now calling on the world’s leading sloyd organization for help. Based out of Washington, Sloyd for Today (SFT) has been happy to oblige. I was curious to find out whether SFT agreed with ACER’s conclusions about the classical origin of paper sloyd. A conversation with Elias Donatello, President of SFT answered my question. Donatello explained to me:

I’ll be honest with you, Art. Deep down inside, a lot of us at SFT question some of ACER’s conclusions. We’ve always thought that Cygnaeus made a unique contribution to handicrafts education, and that he was actually trying to challenge the classical education of his day. But we’ve got to be pragmatic. Our biggest goal is just to get people doing sloyd. If it is easier for homes and schools to adopt sloyd by thinking of it as classical, I think ultimately that’s a good thing. Anyway what really is classical education? If it was more clearly defined, I would have more basis to challenge the conclusion. But for most people, classical is just a synonym for “good,” so what’s the big deal?

I thought Donatello’s response was interesting. I did ask him if he was worried about whether an increased emphasis on Euclid and geometry might over time start to change the way sloyd is interpreted and applied in schools. He replied:

Of course that is always a concern. But we’re not sloyd legalists over here, so if the interpretation of sloyd changes a bit to line up with classical schools, that’s OK. Purism is a bad thing, and ultimately I think it will reduce adoption of sloyd if we stick to the letter of how it should be practiced. Uno Cygnaeus himself lived in a dialog of the centuries. He heard voices from the past and he gave us a method for the future. Sloyd will always evolve. The important thing is that it ties into the philosophy of the ages. That’s more important than the details of how we actually create our models in paper, cardboard, or wood.

Still wanting to explore the historical claims of ACER, I asked Donatello one final question: do you really believe that Michelangelo has provided enough evidence for the existence of paper sloyd in Ancient Greece? Were little children in Athens really building the same kinds of models that Cygnaeus introduced in Finish schools in the 19th century? Donatello replied:

Art, at the end of the day, it’s not about the historical evidence. It’s about whether the narrative makes sense for the model of education that the world needs right now. We’re getting pummeled by modern, secular education. Let’s join hands around a story that we can get inspired about. Which is more inspirational? The idea that Cygnaeus was a sui generis, a lone voice, a unique prophet? Or the idea that the genius of Cygnaeus was to enter into a great conversation of handicrafts spanning millennia? We all want the latter. I want the latter. I want sloyd to be classical. Sometimes, you can make a dream come true.

As I reflect on the perspectives of Michelangelo, Raphael, and Donatello, I am struck by the strength of their case. But despite the growing belief in the classical origins of sloyd, some marginal voices in the homeschool community still insist that sloyd has nothing to do with Ancient Greece. Although outspent and out-promoted by the classical education industry and their allies, these few outcasts persistent in promoting their conviction that sloyd was a recent development with roots outside the Hellenic world. The fact that these groups have not been completely stamped out is testament to the fact that some people do indeed think for themselves. After all, the truth is out there.

Editor’s note: Due to the exclusive nature of this content, this is a limited-run article that will only appear on April 1.

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