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Even now there are fewer than ten programs offering hands-on trades education and they are struggling to survive because the public education system has been redesigned as a feeder system for higher “academic” education.

 

 

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Moving Forward, Looking Back

By Rudy R. Christian

I was talking to a friend recently about some ideas for trades education initiatives and he mentioned how much had changed since he and I started getting involved in educational projects together five years ago. It started me thinking how much really has changed, not just in five years, but since the Whitehill Report. The Whitehill Report, a product of the Committee on Professional and Public Education for Historic Preservation and Restoration formed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP), was published April 15, 1968. The committee was formed in January 1967, less than three months after the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) became law.

The NHPA had given us the National Register of Historic Places, the list of National Historic Landmarks and the State Historic Preservation Offices, but it did nothing to enable the actual process of historic preservation or restoration. In effect the NHPA had given us a way of recognizing the need for historic conservation, but it stopped short of providing any directives for making it happen. The Whitehill Report, named for the committee's chairman Walter Muir Whitehill, was the NTHP's attempt to establish the extent or limitations of the human resources to carry out this work and the degree to which the educational system of the United States was able to produce them. The conclusions it came to were as disheartening as they were enlightening.

The report states: "Technology has displaced the traditional building craftsmen as effectively as industry previously displaced the handcraftsmen who made the objects of domestic use and commerce. Not only has prefabricated and disposable construction destroyed the general need for such craftsmen, but artificial materials have replaced many of the natural materials used in earlier buildings whose properties are part of the craftsmen's lore." In other words, the committee came to the conclusions that the trades had not just vanished, but had been methodically made obsolete, while recognizing that "earlier buildings" required both natural materials and craftsmen skilled in their use. They recognized the importance of the traditional trades in the preservation of historic buildings that were built by people with the knowledge to employ those trades in their construction.

The report went on to say: "These ancient crafts are a significant part of our national cultural resources. Their continuation as a living tradition is essential to insure the authentic conservation of our early buildings. The survival of these crafts will require the most thoughtful solutions to human as well as economic problems. No existing formula can be used. A new solution must be found, based on a national realization of the importance of these skills to our continuing culture. Public knowledge of the standards and objectives required in such craftwork should be developed through education at all levels."

Again they recognized the crucial loss of the educational resources to create modern craftsmen with the skills needed to work on our architectural heritage. What's just as important is the fact that they recognized the traditional trades, which they referred to as "ancient crafts," as an important cultural resource. They also saw the need for education in preservation and the traditional trades "at all levels" at just about the same time that many public education programs began phasing out and dismantling their shop classes.

Today the National Council for Preservation Education's (NCPE) Guide to Academic Programs has 59 programs including both colleges and universities with undergraduate and graduate programs in historic preservation. Many of those programs date back to soon after the Whitehill Report was written, but until 20 years ago only academic programs were available to graduate students. Even though the report clearly stated that skilled trades people would be needed to carry out the actual hands-on process of historic preservation, with the notable exception of the establishment of the National park Service Historic Preservation Training Center in 1977, formal hands-on trades education only started to become available 20 years after it was written. Even now there are fewer than ten programs offering hands-on trades education and they are struggling to survive because the public education system has been redesigned as a feeder system for higher "academic" education. Students who graduate from today's public schools are steered towards professional and technical fields, not towards learning a trade.

It's important to note that the Whitehill Report was wrong in its assumption the trades had "vanished." In reality there have always been highly skilled trades people and the NHPA was an important piece of legislation in that it started a process that now gives more and better work to those skilled craftsmen than they have had for generations. But the increase in demand for skilled trades people is exposing the fact that there aren't enough of them to meet that demand. Although much is being done to pass the knowledge those trades people possess on to future generations, much more is needed.

The Preservation Trades Network held its fourth hands-on summer field school program in New Orleans in partnership with Tulane University in July. The Timber Framer's Guild's apprenticeship program has just been granted approval by the Department of Labor. The Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission has partnered with Thaddeus Stevens College to teach hands-on trades education through their Preservation Trades Technology Program. These are just a few examples of how trades institutions, and colleges and universities are beginning to create parallel programs and partnerships to provide opportunities in trades education and preservation skills, and the students who attend these programs are genuinely grateful for the opportunity to augment their academic learning with real world experience.

I'm happy to say that there are more programs available today than I can list in this forum, but the shortfall of people skilled in the traditional trades is a problem that will continue to worsen every year if more high quality programs aren't created at a much faster rate than they are being created today. We also need to get trades education back into the public school system in order to introduce pre-college students to the trades both for the sake of preserving our built heritage and our cultural heritage. The fact that America is finally beginning to see the value of her historic architecture is in many ways a double-edged sword. But a sword is just a tool, and we need to learn how to use it for the good of historic preservation and the good of the traditional trades.  


Rudy R. Christian is president of Christian & Son, Inc. of Burbank, OH. He is also the executive director of the Preservation Trades Network (PTN) and a blogger on the Traditional Building website. Rudy can be reached at rchristian@planexus.com, www.planexus.com.

 

 

 
 

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