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What I Learned in the Charleston Jail

US public education has been retreating into an ever-narrower curriculum for several decades, and the early casualties have been programs that involve kinesthetic experiences and the manipulation of materials: arts, physical education, music, and particularly crafts like woodworking, nutrition and food preparation, drafting, sewing, and metalworking.

Not that many of these terminated programs were all that terrific, mind you. There was often a tendency to drain the arts of emotional content; turn music into memorization; and compartmentalize crafts as “vocational education,” where skills were taught in isolation, devoid of intellectual content and context. When John Dewey called for “learning by doing,” he probably had in mind something more imaginative than seventh graders churning out cookie cutter bookshelves without ever thinking about why we read books, or how trees grow, or our relationship to the natural world.
 
But now we’re abandoning even that, and further segregating the experiential from the math, science, and (maybe) English and history that have become the obsessive focus of too much of the public education system. What we’re losing, argues Matthew B. Crawford (of Shop Class as Soulcraft fame), is manual competence, as a result of “severing…the cognitive aspects of manual work from its physical execution.”
 
In other words, we’re raising an entire generation who haven’t learned (in public school at least) how things work…and how to work with things. (We’ve also not been very good about teaching how to work with others, or even not to see others as things…but that’s a rant for another day.)
 
So it was a pleasure to meet faculty and students at the American College of the Building Arts at the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies Conference in Charleston, South Carolina.
 
The newly formed College, with working space in the old Charleston jail, “educates and trains artisans in the traditional building arts” through hands-on experience and internships, integrated with a four-year liberal arts education. The students here learn the crafts that built Old Charleston: timber framing, plastering, ironwork, masonry, etc. As a tourist mecca (an estimated $5 billion annually), Still-Old Charleston needs craftspeople to keep its buildings charmingly beautiful. And Future Charleston may well need these traditional arts even more, as Carolinians adapt to changing economic and environmental conditions. In other words, the College is molding exactly the sort of skilled, thoughtful people a largely self-reliant community will need to sustain itself.
 
As for BALLE, it’s a network of compulsive entrepreneurs and networkers, but with a twist: these folks want to grow deeper, not (necessarily) bigger, and remain rooted in “vibrant, livable communities and healthy ecosystems.”  People like Martin Ping from Hawthorne Valley Farms, 400 acres in New York’s Hudson River Valley, which started as a biodynamic demonstration farm but is now more of agrarian ecosystem unto itself with a bakery, dairy, CSA, internships, and sauerkrauting in one organically linked whole. Or Paul Saginaw, who heads up Zingerman’s of Ann Arbor, Michigan, a thriving deli that shunned the traditional route of franchising across an ever-widening geographic range. Instead, Saginaw built an interconnected “community of businesses” in a single city: a restaurant, bakery, deli, roadhouse, coffee company, creamery, confectioner, and even a mail order outlet. In other words, BALLE is made up of exactly the sort of energetic, thoughtful people a largely self-reliant community will need to sustain itself.
 
What skills are your schools teaching? What sort of businesspeople are networking in your community? Where are values like community and resilience being modeled, practiced, and shared? And where can you find a good bialy or a skilled plasterer?

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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