Friday, March 22, 2013

lit hum turns 75

The current issue of Columbia College Today celebrates the 75th Anniversary of their Literary and Humanities program which is part of the core curriculum at Columbia University. It is a great program in which every student at Columbia University (except engineering majors, general studies students, and candidates for advanced degrees) of the same year are reading the same books (mainly classic literature).

Lit Hum offers a unified sense of literary culture to the students, raising the same questions that have concerned human beings throughout history and is certainly one of those programs that makes a great university great.  I have an idea that can make a great university even better.

Some of my long term blog readers will remember 6 years back when my daughter was first enrolled at Columbia College. I began a conversation with Alan Brinkley, provost, concerning my naive proposal to add a hands-on component to the core curriculum. Oh, well. Here we are 6 years later, and the core curriculum on the Titanic remains the same.  I would never suggest that the core curriculum be abandoned. But I will continue to suggest that if the purpose of the core curriculum is to bring us to a common point of human culture, to leave the development of skilled hands out of the formula, is to sustain one of the worst shortcomings of American education. Early proponents of manual arts understood that to teach all to create useful and beautiful objects was an important component in democracy, as it helped to sustain the shared sense of the dignity of human labor. What would happen if students of one of the world's great universities were to enter their intellectual engagements reinforced and illuminated through the shared framework of humanity that only the hands can provide?

Here is how it would work. As part of a core curriculum, students would be arranged in groups according to the classical elements, earth, air, fire and water. There are conveniently, 4 elements and four years of college. And each of these four elements would be addressed through skilled crafts. For instance, across the street from Columbia is St. John the Divine Cathedral that has sat idle for years due to lack of funding and lack of trained stone masons. Can you imagine students of earth becoming engaged in skilled crafting of stone? This would be a core curriculum that would affect each student at the core of self-understanding and relationship to human culture .

Above is a photo of St. John the Divine, or as some in New York call it, "St. John the Unfinished". It is on Amsterdam, one block southeast of Columbia and serves as an apt symbol of humanity when the hands are forgotten or ignored. One tower is missing and the other just a stub. Worked stopped decades ago. Who in these days understands the value of craftsmanship and what it means to develop skill? In the meantime, if those engaged in politics and academia were to understand the way crafting shapes the lives of makers in finer form and in reflection of higher purpose and truth, they might glimpse their own potential to transform our society to be just, humane and enlightened.

Today in my wood shop, I made lids for bracelet boxes and got most of them partially sanded and assembled. The lids are a variety of shapes, and woods. Some have natural textures and others have been textured and ebonized.
 Aren't these lovely new tools? They're gimlets without the Vodka from Lee Valley and are used to get screw holes started in tight places. You may wonder how the drink got its name? One definition refers to a piercing or penetrating quality. Could that be it?

The smallest ones should be perfect for attaching lid supports on the insides of boxes.

Make, fix and create...

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