Some Reassembly Required

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If you read back through my blogs, or sit in on one of many conversations at a PTN International Preservation Trades Workshop (IPTW) or International Trades Education Symposium (ITES), you will notice a recurring theme of many people feeling we need to bring trades education back into our school system. It seems like a simple enough idea; it was there before, after all, so let’s arrange to have it there again. However, it isn’t really as simple as that. Things change.

If you step back even slightly and take a look, you begin to see some obvious problems; when the shop classes were shut down, the woodworking machinery and tools were sold or auctioned off. Replacing them would be a major financial undertaking at a time when schools and teachers are suffering from a lack of funding, and if you ask any good woodworker or machinist, that old machinery was a windfall for their shops because most of it was made when quality was built in. It’s just not available anymore.

Even if schools could afford to retool their shops, where would they find the teachers qualified to instruct the shop classes? With the evolution that has occurred in education, it would take a major effort to educate the educators, which, of course, requires significant time and resources. It would be like steering a cruise ship, when you think about it.

From my perspective, we aren’t and shouldn’t be looking at going back. We need to be looking at moving forward. It’s the same challenge that PTN faced 15 years ago when a group of folks who actually did the hands-on work of conservation realized that the real mistake the writers of the Whitehill Report made wasn’t in purporting that the trades were lost; it was in not hearing the voices of the tradespeople all around them. It was time those voices were heard.

I like to think of the gradual rebuilding of a place for trades in our culture as adaptive reuse. The fact that the part of our built environment we consider to be historic was built by people with knowledge of the traditional trades doesn’t mean we have to live, act or dress like they did, or even necessarily use the same tools they did. What is important is that we understand why they did what they did. By understanding the purpose behind the tradition, the same standards and goals can be applied to the work we do in the 21st century as we go about conserving their work.

Obviously, this can be seen as a slippery slope, but let me use my own work as an example. I am often asked, “Do you still use the old tools to do your work?” and my answer is consistently that I can and do use those tools when it is appropriate, but I am also willing to use modern electric tools as long as it doesn’t change the finished work. I still apply scribe, square or mill rule layout as part of my restoration work so the timbers have the same layout characteristics as the structure I’m restoring, but I don’t hesitate for a minute to pick up my 35-ft. Fat Max tape measure to take my measurements, rather than stepping them off with dividers!

I own several old hand-crank boring machines and enjoy using them very much. I’m happy to have an 8-year-old child use one to drill a 2-in. hole for roughing out a mortise, but I would never think of handing him or her an electric drill motor for that job for fear he or she would break an arm or worse. And it’s always fun to explain that they can tell their dad they learned to use a 125-year-old cordless drill. But we rough out mortises in the shop with an electric chain mortiser. It’s faster, just as accurate, and when the mortise is finished with a chisel, you can’t tell the difference.

If we apply these same standards and goals to adapt our educational systems, I think we can build a system that is appropriate in the 21st century. By reusing the knowledge from the past and adapting modern educational tools that work in today’s world, we can build programs that introduce young people to the trades as something valuable to their future, not as nearly forgotten remnants of the past.

What’s important is that we recognize and accept that schools aren’t where young people will learn a trade. It’s where they could learn what trades are and what they mean in the world we live in. If they decide to become a tradesperson, they should have been instilled with a good learning ethic to use as they are taught the tricks of their trade in the real world. But if the school systems continue to ignore the trades, most students will graduate with little or no knowledge of them.