|The Future of American Colleges May Lie, |
Literally, in Students' Hands
Not long ago, a friend of mine led a book-group discussion among college students that centered on Diet for a Hot Planet, one of many recent books focusing on the vulnerabilities of the industrial food system and the threats posed by climate change. The book's solutions were well-worn and deceptively simple: Buy fruits, vegetables, and meats locally, and cook them at home.
The surprise came when the students in the group started talking about the solutions—and found themselves stuck: "Almost all the students said they didn't know how to cook," my friend said, "and even the young, single adult employees in the group admitted they lacked both the know-how and motivation."
This revelation came at sibling colleges in rural Minnesota founded by monasteries, both with long traditions of hands-on activities. The older monks and sisters here, along with many of the older alumni, can still remember when they milked cows, plucked chickens, and picked potatoes grown on the monasteries' surrounding land. Bread, furniture, preserved food, ceramics, and other daily necessities were produced on the campuses, helping to sustain a place to which the monks and sisters had committed in a holy vow.
While some remnants of that life still exist, much of it is gone. Most of the students on their campuses, who now mainly come from suburban areas of the Twin Cities, might have a hard time identifying beans in a field, would probably be vexed by sewing a patch on a pair of jeans, and almost certainly have never touched a band saw.
Although this generation of young people is often hailed as tech-savvy, they are out of touch with the technology that actually makes their lives go, and their parents’ generation isn’t much better. Just as American industries have sent manufacturing jobs overseas, average Americans have been deskilling in their personal and professional lives over the past several decades. Fixing engines, growing food, building houses—these tasks have been passed to lower socioeconomic classes, as college-educated Americans chase careers in the service economy.
Isn’t it time we got some of those skills back? What if our schools and colleges rejiggered their curricula to include more hands-on, traditional skills as a compliment to studies in the sciences and humanities? Both the professional world and civic life are going to need people who have a sophisticated understanding of global challenges, but also the practical, even old-fashioned know-how to come up with sustainable solutions. The problems we face are enormous—and the stagnant economy is just the beginning. Climate change, fossil-fuel constraints, rotting infrastructure, collapsing ecosystems, and resource scarcities all loom large. Meeting those challenges will require both abstract and practical knowledge.
Read the full Tools for Life article here.