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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

'Strapping our students
August 21, 2012 - 8:59pm

Over the weekend, my watch strap broke. 

So on Monday, on the way home from campus, I went to the store to get a replacement. More precisely, I went to the stores. First, to the drugstore (on the theory that since I'd gotten my last three or four (indeed, as many as I remember) replacement watch straps at drug stores, that would be a good place to get the next one).  They didn't have any.  So I went to the nearby men's store -- dress clothing, casual clothing, accessories, etc. -- and they didn't have one either.  It's not that neither store had a watch strap that (1) would fit both my watch and my wrist, and (2) wasn't constituted of luminescent plastic; neither store had any watch straps, nor watch bands, at all.  The drugstore had watches (hence my mental note about luminescent plastic); the menswear store had nada.  So I made the ultimate sacrifice -- twice.  I went to not one but two big-box retailers.  And ended up with nothing for my pains.  Both had watches, neither had watch straps.  But on the way from the second big-box back to my car, I happened to pass a jeweler.  On impulse, I stuck my head in and the first thing I saw on the counter was a display rack of watch straps.  Bingo!

Anyway, I found a replacement that met conditions (1) and (2), paid the nice elderly gentleman, and went my merry way.  Or something.  Because it turned out that I paid as much for the replacement strap (not in any way noticeably superior to the one that came had just broken) as I would have paid in one of the big-box stores for a whole new watch.  Of pretty much the same make and model as the used one on my wrist.  Strap and all.

Which got me to thinking about how drugstores don't carry replacement straps any more because nobody replaces their broken watch straps any more.  And about how jewelry stores and the wholesalers that supply them have to charge as much for a strap as their competitors do for a whole watch because there just isn't a lot of volume in watch straps any more.  And about how it's not just true that nobody replaces watch straps any more, it's also true that nobody repairs much of anything any more.  It's cheaper (certainly, no more expensive) to replace than to repair.  And our consumer-based culture values "new" more than "durable" or any other traditional element of "quality". 

And that got me thinking about how, when I was a kid, I used to repair stuff.  Even when I wasn't the one who broke it.  I repaired stuff after a year or more of taking things apart to see how they worked.  And how they were fastened together.  And -- after a few trials and errors -- how they went back together again.  But all my childish hands-on inquiries were based on the fundamental premise that (a) the internal workings of gadgets had a certain logic to them, hence (b) certain people -- indeed, certain people who lived in my town -- understood that logic and thereby understood how to fix broken gadgets, hence (c) if I understood the logic, I too could fix stuff, and (d) the best way to understand how stuff worked was to take it apart, look at the insides and figure it out.

Later in life, my understanding (albeit limited) of how machines worked set the stage for a profession-enabling understanding of how information systems work (in large part), how organizations of people work (in significant part), how the economy works (in some aspects), and how the systems that affect climate work (in some small way).  If I hadn't taken stuff apart as a kid, I wouldn't (for better or worse) have the perspective on environmental, social and economic sustainability that I now do.

But today's kids don't seem to be taking stuff apart.

So it strikes me that perhaps the most important thing I can do on Greenback's campus is to establish a student-run repair shop.  Create an expectation that students can fix broken stuff, and an environment in which they're encouraged to try to do it.  Provide an opportunity for students to get their hands dirty, learn the internal logic of simple systems and mechanisms, gain a sense of mastery (and the patience to deal with the inevitable frustration).  Ask for help from the experts on campus in ways that aren't strictly limited by disciplinary silos.  Indeed, learn that real-world problems aren't constrained by academic disciplines at all.

With luck, maybe we can set the stage for not only decreasing the number of inoperative bicycles and broken backpacks on campus, but also for increasing the number of students who are able to (boot-)strap their understanding of practical complexity.  Followed, with luck, by a willingness to engage it.  And the (real) world.



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