As noted in my last post, I wasn't overwhelmed by last week's AASHE conference. But that's not to say that there weren't high points, that there weren't positive notes. There were.
One of the most positive notes (at least, to my narrow way of thinking) was a relatively newfound emphasis on teaching "sustainable living skills" to students. Teaching skills is far different from teaching abstracted knowledge, both in the techniques it requires and the effects it produces. Students (and all of us are students) learn skills by trying to perform them. By failing, and failing repeatedly, but (with luck and effort) failing a little less -- or at least a little differently -- each time. It's not true that practice makes perfect, but it is true that practice makes us better. Michael Ruhlman, in his many books on food and cooking, often says that the reason chefs are so good at preparing the foods they do is that they've prepared each dish hundreds of times, paid attention to what techniques and what ingredients yield the best outcomes, learned from their mistakes and their successes. But chefs aren't perfect, the dishes they prepare aren't perfect, it's not about perfection. It's about finesse, and excellence, and success.
I mention cooking because, to my mind, it's one of the most basic "sustainable life skills" imaginable. Cooking, not just heating prepared food-like items. Cooking from scratch. Or, if you choose to include prepared food-like items in your recipes (canned condensed soup and jarred spaghetti sauce come immediately to mind), cooking in the knowledge that if the prepared item were not available you'd be still be able to find a way (given a well-stocked larder) to make the dish come out OK. Different maybe, but OK none the less.
Cooking is one of those basic skills, the acquisition of which engenders confidence in all forms of dealing with bio-physical reality. Learning to cook for the first time is a step towards reducing the mystery, the impenetrability, the scariness of the world around us. Take a piece of a plant. Take a piece of an animal. Take some liquid and some heat and some salt or pepper or dried herbs. Make it all taste good. Prepare a dish you like, and other people like, and that you feel a bit of pride in. Take control of at least some small part of the world you live in.
Control is the key element that skill acquisition creates. Control -- or maybe it's confidence in the ability to assert a degree of control -- changes the relationship between an individual and the surrounding social and bio-physical environments. Confidence in the ability to assert at least influence -- incomplete control, but control none the less -- is key in allowing each of us, given knowledge which invokes fear and trembling, to feel like we're not helpless. In the presence of new knowledge, new realizations, new appreciation of the challenges our society faces, we may start out not knowing what steps to take. We may start out feeling ineffective. But we won't start out feeling helpless. We start out knowing that we can have an impact. Then, we can shift our attention to determining just what we want that impact to be and how best to achieve it.
Is cooking the critical sustainable life skill that will allow each and every one of us to save society and the world? Hardly. Earlier this year, Scott Carlson in the Chronicle had an excellent article detailing a range of other hands-on skills that, by their acquisition, change relationships between students and the worlds in which they live. It's not the acquisition of one hands-on skill as opposed to another, it's the acquisition of capability as opposed to concept. Of the ability to make a change as opposed to the ability to make an argument. The ability to act, not just analyze.
Which isn't to say that analysis isn't important. (Note the step about determining what impact we want to create and how best to achieve it.) And it's not to say that each and every person who can make a good apple pie or a decent chicken-fried steak can adequately address the challenges which make our current socio-political-economic model unsustainable. But at least our profession (in the broadest sense of that word) is beginning to ask whether folks who can, demonstrably, do stuff aren't perhaps a tad better positioned to effect change than folks who can't. And, as educational institutions, how we can turn out a few more of the former.
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