Thursday, December 29, 2011

make local...

Yesterday I suggested finding a way forward from the situation we are in as a way of closing out 2011 and greeting the new year, 2012. We are suffering from economic recession that goes on and on with no end in sight. Our homes have lost value in the trillions of dollars. Our schools cannot compete successfully with schools in many other nations. Educators and politicians have pushed for national standards, but those standards and adapting to them have pushed us further behind. Major industries have complained that they have jobs unfilled because of lack of qualified applicants, and here in Arkansas, Whirlpool is shutting down a plant and moving the jobs to Mexico.

Not all on the horizon is so bleak. Reader Tim Holton sent a link to an article about a restoration of a wood shop program in San Francisco. Shop class retooled for future at O'Connell High We are beginning to see efforts at local levels to bring things back.

Yesterday I mentioned widening the narrow path forward. And what I really mean by that is opening all the doors to our children's success. In schools we have very narrow definitions of success. If who you are cannot be easily laid on a spreadsheet of data, you will not measure up and are led to know it. But what if we had so many more ways in which children's successful spirits can be expressed? The arts are one key, and community is the other.

I am curious how many of my readers take full advantage of the communities in which we all live. The idea of local is essential to widening the narrow path toward becoming a nation of craftsmen in its highest sense. Whether we are talking about music or food, or consumer goods the power we afford to others in our communities by listening, hiring, buying and making, are transformative.

René Dubos was a French born American environmental activist who coined the slogan, "Think globally, act locally." And this sage advice applies to nearly all things. Listening to an artist on your iPod should not prevent you from encouraging the musicians in your local pub. The internet and human global connectivity should be inspiring local effort, not diminishing it. But in order for this to be the case, we each must act in the encouragement of others.

The idea of local is at the heart of "progressive" education like what we practice at the Clear Spring School. It should not be thought that progressive and progress within the macrocosm are the same thing. Progressive means movement from the center of the child through a gradual awakening to community and beyond. In so far as each child is unique and each community is unique, the idea of imposing standards of curriculum, standards of measurement and standards of "success" for all children is to neglect the teachers best ally, the child's inquisitive relationship with all that surrounds. It is easy to see how the term progressive has become misunderstood, as it was presented as something "new" as shown in the marvelous video above.

As the last few days of 2011 pass I will continue to greet the new year with ideas on the path forward. I invite my readers to consider how the concepts of local and taking matters into our own hands are exactly the same thing.

In the wood shop, I have been making parts for small boxes and am now in the midst of hundreds of small parts, at various stages in the milling and shaping operations.

At school I am preparing for classes to resume on Tuesday.

Make, fix and create...


  1. Doug—

    Glad to see you found the O'Connell shop class story hopeful.

    Pardon the long reply, but you really struck a chord with me here -- something I've thought a lot about. The question of "how the concepts of local and taking matters into our own hands" are related gets at nothing less than the very origin and foundation of civilization. It's embodied by the story of the ancient Greek god Hephaestus. Here's Hesiod:


    "Sing, clear-voiced Muse, of Hephaestus famed for inventions. With bright-eyed Athene he taught men glorious crafts throughout the world,—men who before used to dwell in caves in the mountains like wild beasts. But now that they have learned crafts through Hephaestus the famed worker, easily they live a peaceful life in their own houses the whole year round.

    "Be gracious, Hephaestus, and grant me success and prosperity!"

    The very word "civilization," we have to remind ourselves, comes from the root civitas, or city — i.e., local community. The first civilizations were built where successful agriculture had generated surplus to support local markets for surplus to be sold, and so to support, in turn, the development of the other arts. Hence local communities bound together by people serving each other, providing for each other materially, primarily with the many building arts and their affiliate arts, but also arts associated with the other great necessary and foundational arts of food production and clothing.

    It's worth noting that in The Iliad, Hephaestus is married to Charis, the model of charity, reminding us that the arts are, in origin, wedded to the necessity of humans, at least in a civilized state, to provide for each others needs. Hence, the idea of *being civilized* inextricably binds together the ideas of both enjoying a certain level of material well-being and also social well-being through practicing civility -- essentially being charitable toward others (hence Hesiod links acquisition of crafts to people "living peaceful lives" housed in a state of civilization). Therefore we should not be surprised to see a decline in civility where there's a decline in making and providing materially for one another at the local level. Material, active provision and engagement with one another in common cause is the basis of getting along. The most profound explanation of this I've seen is by Ruskin in his great essay "The Mysteries of Life and Its Arts" claiming the foundational role of the arts in society:
    "The greatest of all the mysteries of life, and the most terrible, is the corruption of even the sincerest religion, which is not daily founded on rational, effective, humble, and helpful action. Helpful action, observe! for there is just one law, which obeyed, keeps all religions pure — forgotten, makes them all false. Whenever in any religious faith, dark or bright, we allow our minds to dwell upon the points in which we differ from other people, we are wrong, and in the devil's power. ... At every moment of our lives we should be trying to find out, not in what we differ with other people, but in what we agree with them; and the moment we find we can agree as to anything that should be done, kind or good, ...then do it; push at it together; you can't quarrel in a side-by-side push; but the moment that even the best men stop pushing, and begin talking, they mistake their pugnacity for piety, and it's all over."

    This is a good point for me to shut up and get back to work!

  2. Tim, wonderful stuff. I m reminded by Ruskin's comments of the saying about idle hands being the devil's workshop. When we are busy working together on the good, we are the good.

    I am glad today's post struck a positive note. There is truly nothing new here. I haven't discovered anything that wise men haven't known all along. So to see our salvation described by the ancient Greeks is no surprise. Thanks!

  3. It has been common sense, I believe, for millenia. We need desperately to revive this understanding.

    If I can add one more point, the converse of civility depending on making is also true: we should not be surprised to see a decline in craft where the social well-being of community life has declined. Craft debased and abstracted from providing for others, from human need, inevitably deteriorates. Fundamentally, things made with actual use in mind -- especially by people the artisan knows -- are simply more likely to be made with greater care and workmanship. I'm not the only one who's observed that the main distinguishing characteristic of the so-called "international" (i.e., anti-vernacular, anti-local) style of architecture that took hold in the last century is that it just looks *cheap*.

    This is not abstract. You mention Whirlpool leaving Arkansas for Mexico. I recently went to Sears to buy a new washer and dryer. I told the salesman I wanted durable, reliable and efficient machines. His answer was honest: it seemed to him that a few years ago the manufacturers had gotten together and agreed not to make machines that will last more than a few years. The Sears salesman could look me in the eye and tell me this, but in a world where manufacturing was more local, would the factory owner I ran into in a cafe or coming to me for picture framing be able to bring himself to do so? Of course not, because he'd know he'd essentially mistreated me, his fellow citizen, and feel shame. (He'd also be afraid of getting just what he gives.) The remote manufacturer, too far from the user to care about his or her well-being, can be expected to be careless about workmanship.

    I'm with you -- this is all ancient knowledge and common sense that must be made common again.