Two weeks ago, I visited the North Bennet Street School in Boston. It is one of the oldest trade and vocational schools in the country, founded in the 1880s. I stepped into the school from a hot bustling day in Boston, with tourists herding down the street to behold the Paul Revere house and the Old North Church. It’s quiet inside, with a beautifully restored antique bandsaw and a wall of furniture leg patterns. The gift shop has a mix of coffee mugs and fine furniture that costs close to what I make in a year.
I had emailed ahead, and so I got to take a walking tour through the workshops with Rob O’Dwyer, the director of admissions for the school. It was mostly empty, but there was a three month intensive furniture making class going on, and some students and instructors were in their shops working. Their tool chests were works of art, inventive and proportional. The space was full of natural light, though each individual work bench had little more room than I have in my own little shop. Most of the work is done with handtools, though there is a machine room in the center to speed up production.
There was an instructor there who had made an incredible federal style table. It was inlaid, had a folding top, beautiful banding. He was working on it “just to try it out.” I felt the awe and envy come over me that always does in the presence of people who’ve devoted themselves fully to a task. He asked if I was thinking about attending the school–and I groped for an answer. Of course I was holding that dream in my mind. But I also told him that I was one year away from finishing my PhD in American Literature. And as he said, “Well, sure. If you’ve given your prime years to that, you’ll want a career in that.”
If only it were so easy. A PhD in American Literature, sadly, is not a degree that garauntees much in the way of job prospects. Certainly there are English professors, but there are far more PhD holders than there are tenure track professor positions (largely a result of running universities as businesses, but I digress).
So I always have a certain degree of dreaminess about my work. I followed this path not because it would lead to a good job, but despite the fact that it may not. An undergrad professor, when I was just starting my program, asked me: “In five years, would you rather have done the PhD and not continue, or look back after five years of working and wish you’d done the PhD?” Then it seemed obvious. I suppose it still does. But I also wonder about all the paths taken or not.
The idea behind Sloyd education (as practiced at the NBSS) is that craftsmanship is a moral and spiritual training as well as a manual one. That in connecting a student to the values of good workmanship, honesty, perseverance, justice, and a suitably humble estimation of the self will take root in the soul.
I wonder, dabbler that I am, how to practice those virtues without giving up my acquisitive curiousity. Is it possible to be devoted to these many things? To scholarship and teaching, to craft and honesty, to nature and the best that has been thought and written?
I’d like to take that three month class someday, but I probably never will. I’ll instead devote time to reading and teaching. To finding ways to open up students to the world around them that isn’t clamoring for their attention and doesn’t need their money. I will enjoy that beautiful high end furniture, and maybe make a peice or two someday. I’ll practice violin until I can play without embarrassment, but I’ll never solo with a symphony. I’ll keep flyfishing and rock climbing and sailing; without record fish, first ascents, or round the world voyages.
I don’t know that I’ll ever really make my peace with that, but I’m always inspired to be in the presence of that devotion, and glad that places exist to foster it.