Are Tradespeople the Canary in the Cultural Coal Mine?

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Since my last blog I have had quite a few conversations with friends and acquaintances about the economics of trades education. As you might expect, it sent me on a bit of a wild goose chase trying to figure out just what the source of the diploma/debt marriage was. After all, isn’t getting an education supposed to be about learning skills which enable you to go out and make a living, not pay off a debt you incur before you start using what you have learned? NPR recently did a series on this subject, but as I listened to it I realized there was something missing. The topic of trades education was not included in the discussions.

Highly skilled and respected tradesperson Robert Yapp Jr. (top right with glasses) teaching a class at his grass roots “Window Restoration College”

Highly skilled and respected tradesperson Robert Yapp Jr. (top right with glasses) teaching a class at his grass roots “Window Restoration College”

Why? Because in the world we live in today, and in particular in the United States, trades education is as good as nonexistent. I didn’t say completely nonexistent. There are several higher education institutions out there valiantly trying to survive in the highly competitive world of higher education, several of which I work with as much as possible. But they themselves will tell you, in the big picture, they can barely even be seen by students graduating from our public school system. Nowhere in the mandate of today’s public schools is there a directive to help young people find their inner tradesperson. Why is that?

I myself have been guilty of lamenting the loss of shop class from the K-through-12 school system, but of late I have begun to question the validity of that lamentation. What was the purpose of shop class in the first place? It didn’t exist in the one-room schoolhouses that were the roots of today’s massive public school system. At school you learned "readin', writin' and rithmetic." At home you learned how to plant a garden, sow a field, weed, milk a cow, change a tire, hammer a nail and everything else needed to eek out an existence. Whether you liked it or not, some of the most important lessons in life came from "doin chores.”

In Early America children were sent to school, if there was one, to learn the things their parents couldn’t teach them at home, didn’t have time to or didn’t feel qualified to. But when it came time to teach a young person to drive a team, swing an axe or push a hand plane; that was done under the guidance of a family member or friend of the family who had those skills. If you think about it, there was a very logical separation of the education of young minds with books and blackboards and the education of young hands and minds with hands-on experience.

A lot has changed since those early days, and the more it changes, the faster it changes. Industrialization was a key component in the changes that took place during and after the American Revolution. As industries grew, fathers, mothers and even children became laborers in the mills and factories that drove the growth of the capitalist economy. And as the roles of early Americans changed so did the role of the public education system. Sending your children off to school became an important option for parents who themselves were going off to work, and as the incomes of entire generations increased, the decision to purchase what you needed, rather than grow it or make it yourself, became part of daily life.

With that transition to buy instead of build came an insidious change in the education of our youth. Parents who used to be able to teach their children how to sew, grow or hoe were losing those very skills and becoming dependent on an education system to not only care for their children while they were at work, but to teach them virtually everything they needed to know. That was when the education train jumped the track. It was being asked to do something it was never designed to do to enable the parents of the children attending the schools to go off and work in the factories.

Don’t get me wrong. The Industrial Revolution didn’t eliminate the need for tradespeople. In its early stages it created a great demand for them. People who understood blacksmithing, building construction and use of hand tools where a valuable asset to the industrialists who were competing to get as much of the money this new economy was creating as they could get their hands on. But the steel we were forging, the buildings we were building and even the tools we were using to do it were changing to suit the needs of industry. And coal was driving the steam engine of that industrial world.

The problem, as it relates to trades education, was the opportunity to learn, standing side by side with a father or friend, how to true a board, forge a latch, sharpen a plane or fix a broken wagon wheel was slowly being lost. If young people were going to learn trade skills it would have to be at school, but schools had never been designed to do that in the first place. Schooling was about studying, memorizing and passing tests. You can't teach trades that way. Learning a trade requires the experience of doing things wrong so you can learn to do them right. It is a slow and tedious process of teaching both the hand and mind to work together to accomplish something. It is experiential.

As schools began to try to pick up the pieces of the education puzzle, attempts were made to understand just what skills it was important to teach. But the world around them was now much more focused on the need for good factory workers. By the end of the 19th century public educational systems were including a form of trades education called “industrial arts.” Go figure. For a time industry and education were strange bedfellows. The tradesperson of that period was more of a Frankenstein than a master of a trade. Trades education had been co-opted to suit the needs of industry.

Is it any wonder that when America finally started to wake up to the need for preservation it was not an easy task to find tradespeople skilled in traditional building? The tradespeople who built the buildings we endeavor to preserve today had little opportunity to pass that knowledge along to their prodigy. Learning at the side of the master was no longer the norm, and the number of young people who realized the value of doing so had become fewer during the heyday of industrialization. It is little wonder that the group tasked with writing the Whitehill Report came to the conclusion that the traditional trades were dead.

Luckily the move to preserve more of our past has been bringing traditional tradespeople out of the stonework. The damage done by the whole “blue collar/white color” mentality is slowly being reversed. But can we fix the problem by putting shop classes back in public schools? I am here to say no. Today’s factory workers receive on-the-job training provided by their employers. It isn’t the place of the public schools to do it, and the fact is, the type of education provided by them isn't even suited to teaching trades. Both learning trades and the people who are best suited to learn them require a completely different educational environment than the public schools can provide.

If we want trades education to be available at all age levels we need to build the institutions to make that happen at a grass roots level. People teaching people is in itself a revival of how trades were traditionally taught. If we can make that happen we can sidestep both the daunting task of rebuilding the public school system and the need to buy a diploma with money you haven’t even made yet. I know for a fact this is already happening in many local communities and many well respected tradespeople have joined in to ensure they are part of the revival. We used to know how to teach trades. If we are lucky, maybe it’s similar to riding a bicycle.