Last weekend, I had the pleasure of spending time at the Preservation Institute Nantucket, a well-respected and established summer field-school program of the University of Florida. The weather wasn’t much to write home about, unless you're one of those people who enjoys cold wind and rain, but the historic architecture was interesting, if you like grey weathered wood shingles and white trim as far as the eye can see.
My wife, Laura, and I had the opportunity to put on a traditional timber-framing demonstration for the Nantucket Preservation Trust, on the grounds of the Athenaeum, which was open to the public. We had more than 40 people brave the elements to learn a little bit about the ancient trade that built most of the historic buildings on the island. I also gave a lecture on the role of trades in preservation work followed by a tour of two historic timber-frame roof systems on two 19th-century churches, where I introduced the students to my method of looking at historic buildings through the eyes of the tradesperson who built them. I helped them understand how looking at buildings from a virtual time machine can help you better understand how and why they were built as they were and what has happened to them between then and now.
In the evening we had some time to chat with Marty Hylton, the program’s current director and a good friend, and the conversation led to trades education. Surprised? Marty was instrumental in PTN’s introduction to summer field schools, and it was his idea to bring tradespeople and trades students together with academic students to create a new education dynamic. Marty agrees that trades educations programs would benefit greatly if it were possible for master tradespeople to actually hold teaching certificates, making it possible for students to receive college credits for taking courses taught by them. It would also be very beneficial if colleges and universities had access to tradespeople with teaching certificates who could act as visiting professors.
So why isn’t this happening? It would appear there is a lack of a champion. Even though trades organizations would like to be a part of creating this much-needed tool, the way that higher educational systems have evolved in the U.S. creates some pretty serious roadblocks. Tenure is a major one. Academic systems are highly competitive toward tenured positions. It would appear that tenure isn’t something that can be acquired effectively through lifetime experience in a field; rather tenured positions are quite often the result of the creation of abstract positions in a rarefied social culture.
The fact that someone has reached master craftsmen status means little or nothing in the academic world. Tenure in the academic world is gleaned principally through a rigorous process of obtaining the right degrees, actively teaching in a classroom setting, research and publication of that research, research being the principal factor looked at by the provost in evaluating an individual’s qualifications. This has created an environment where publication channels are readily available for academics to present their research and theses, but avenues for publication of the work of the trades are generally not financially supported or readily available.
The heart of the problem seems to rest in the fact that success in the educational world is reached through academic activities that are based on teach-what-you-can-test programs, while success in the world of the trades is reached through experiential activity, which is gauged by cultural or social approval and appreciation. What is common in both worlds is the fact that mastering any field requires acquiring the skills to teach others what you have learned. If this alone were what qualified someone to be certified as an educator, the resource would be both larger and truly interdisciplinary, but as my friend Marty might say, “Don’t hold your breath. Higher education is private enterprise.”