For me, both as an artist and as someone involved with traditional boats, schools and museums have gone hand in hand and they have both been vitally important to me over the years.
Today, I keep coming back to a hunch that schools and museums need to change. They need to change and they need to change for the same reasons and in ways that might end up making them indistinguishable. This is true of all schools and all museums, though here let’s focus on the institutions within and around the community of boats.
I’ve had some old-fashioned notions about schools and museums. I’ve expected that schools were a place to learn how much we don’t know and come to terms with that, and that museums were places where we could find connections to the way people in other times and places dealt with the questions of living. This, when for most people school has been reduced to where we go to get credit for what we are spoon-fed and museums are theme-parks for the quaint and obsolete.
We are in the midst of a catabolic collapse. A catabolic collapse is what happens when a system, no longer able to find what it needs outside itself, begins to eat itself from the inside out so as to prolong its function. In the end, it doesn’t succumb directly to outside forces, it consumes itself. It’s a nasty business! There are plateaus of apparent stability that last for a while until another shock arrives, and the whole, or at least significant and ever larger parts, fall to the next level of comparative stasis. From the inside, this passes for stability long after a wake-up call would be helpful. We tend to blame ourselves for failures that are more or less fated by our circumstances. The system gathers defensive energies around the status-quo, and turns the naturally conservative among us into reactionaries and nihilistic revolutionaries. All of us are guilty of standing by in paralyzed silence as the unbelievable keeps happening and everything settles around us.
What does this have to do with schools and museums?
Schools and museums are institutionalized responses to fundamental needs. We need to pass on what we know, and we need to preserve enough of what came before to provide lessons for those who follow. As institutions, these entities become codified. Expectations, and the procedures they embody, become fossilized. Institutions, and the patterns codified in them, are in a race towards irrelevancy. The assumptions behind these patterns have carried dissonances with them that stretch back hundreds, and even thousands, of years. These have a life of their own and become parasitic on the very impulses we have to nurture and conserve.
We turn sentimentality against our schools and museums. We trivialize them as we expose ourselves to the dangers of brutality barely concealed in sentimentality. We keep schools “for the children!” We keep museums to remember the “good old days!” We show our contempt for everything we say we love in this way, and in the end, our contempt comes back around to destroy us.
How else can we think of schools and museums? How can we combine them into viable and vital organisms?
How we relate to these questions, and which adaptations we make surrounding their implications, will have a significant impact in how we go forward.
As the present has become increasingly stupid, as our systems continue to hollow themselves out in catabolic collapse, learning/teaching and our relationship to what remains of past legacies, whether remnants of the natural world, or artifacts from the past; are increasingly valuable and increasingly at risk.
Schools can be – in my experience this has mostly been in spite of themselves! – vital places where we carry out a questioning search for meaning and value. Museums are repositories of artifacts and the skills and attitudes maintained by their caretakers and curators. These were all of use to people in various times and under conditions that differ significantly from our own. We can begin to use these potentials directly by combining our schools and museums. We can use these opportunities to revitalize our approaches to art and craft in light of what we now know about the failing choices around us and the treasure trove of alternatives housed in our collections. We can disabuse ourselves of the idiotic notion that the “latest innovation” is all that matters and rediscover what has always been true. Most of life is taken up by activities and the interaction with objects that have been honed over countless generations. If we look at any moment in the past, the most transient and fleeting aspects of that time were its innovations, its fads, and styles of being different. This will require a tremendous readjustment for those of us who have bought into innovation hook line and sinker. For most of us here who care about boats this will at least feel familiar. It will resonate with what we know from our own experiences around boats.
Within the lifetime of many alive today an iPod or an automobile are likely to be much more obsolete than an oarlock or a gaff cutter. Not because we’ve gone off into a Jetson’s like future of technological singularity or a dreadful zombie-apocalypse, but because the fuels and the culture that made them and used them will have disappeared from daily life. The same will go for attitudes towards technology and our conceptions of what makes up an economy. Unless we have access and begin saving and training for the almost lost practices around arts and crafts we will be left helpless in such a transition.
An approaching catabolic collapse can appear to be a rewinding of history. It’s important to recognize that this is an illusion. One that can be as dangerous as any of the other illusions we suffer under today. If we lose computers we don’t simply go back to slide rules. If we lose airplanes and cars we don’t just go back to steam railroads. Eighteen-eighty will never come again. What we need to learn from the past is not how to live in the past, but how to provide ourselves with a range of perspectives we might be able to combine into a viable future.
A viable future will never be Utopian, just as our collapse will probably not result in any single dystopian apocalypse. These are the flip sides of an attitude that will always insist that fantasy is more important than what is real. A catabolic collapse is a drawn-out process. There are no convenient escapes into absolute perfection or complete annihilation.
Our schools and museums are currently, and increasingly, obsolete. Not for what they could be doing, but because of our insistence that they continue as they have been. They are increasingly unfund-able by traditional means as the “surplus” and the attitudes of philanthropy they supported atrophy. Schools and museums are caught in a trap, being held to a set of tasks they are increasingly unable to undertake and that would be increasingly irrelevant even if we did them. Our schools are preparing young people for conditions that will not exist when their students complete their training. They are reinforcing the wrong lessons and corrupted by the dishonesty behind such programs. What is being taught is that we have no choice but to embrace futility, force ourselves to accept it, and then go on to spread hypocrisy in the hopes of gaining an advantage as we watch everyone descend into poverty.
Our museums are in lock-step. To maintain their collections, and to maintain their core staffs and abilities, they are forced to accept schemes that put them at greater risk while only tying them closer and closer to obsolete forms. Instead they could become places where teachers, students, anyone choosing to share knowledge and values can have access to the tools and the arts and the crafts of the past. Fundamentally this is a change in attitudes not a change in brick and mortar.
Every case will be different. At some point many will come to see the value in something like this, but by then what now still exists will probably have been disbanded and scattered, if not destroyed in the process of catabolic collapse. This transition is one that falls to us as the generations alive at this point of transition. If we do not show foresight to change the course of an increasing marginalization and trivialization of schools and museums who will? This is an attitudinal change around our relationship to sincerity. We are conditioned to mock sincerity or see it as a lie or a refuge for the naive, or for scoundrels. Acting from out of genuine conviction – and learning to accept confusion and delay when we are in doubt – is a powerful force. The example we can exert by simply standing up and facing the lies around us, even if the steps we then take are halting and tenuous, will have a tremendous impact. Such a process doesn’t have to “succeed” to be of value. It begins to have value once the word gets around that we are facing up to what confronts us and not bending to the pressure to continue denying it.
This process begins with a declaration that we are no longer going through the motions, pretending our current conditions are just a blip on some fantasy narrative of unending progress. This should be right up our alley! We wouldn’t focus attention on the old and the “obsolete” the way we do if we really believed in that kind of future!
As this year we cycle through another series of gatherings of the tribe it is time to end the way this has increasingly felt like a series of missed opportunities. We gather, we celebrate our love of boats, and we dedicate ourselves to the continuation of whatever aspect of the boat we feel most capable of serving, yet we do this under an increasingly false premise. The same holds true for our schools and museums in their day-to-day activities. We continue to pretend, more or less sheepishly and in the manner of sleep-walkers, that the general cultural narrative that continues to see what we are about as marginal and trivial is not what has become irrelevant, as this system eats itself and all of us from the inside. We are sitting on a set of attitudes and skills – and a number of collections of artifacts – that we know are more valuable than the crap that is shoving them aside.
The enormity of our predicament is enough to make it clear why we are reticent. It can seem that the worst thing to do is to admit how bad things have gotten. We each may secretly wish for a deliverance through miraculous good news or a dramatic ending. This feeling is a trap. Most of us know those sorts of traps. Boats provide lessons in dealing with such traps, to those who survive their use! We know better than to go on pretending. We have access to, and we have within us, so much of what we need to do something really worthwhile. We are at this crossroads watching whatever is left that was good of the past rot away into oblivion while we stand by as the young are “trained” for lives no one wants and no one actually believes will be available to them.
This seems an impossible task, but so does any emergency approaching on the cusp of our awareness. Once we dig in we can find our way step-by-step and we will find some way forward.
It won’t be ideal, thank heaven!
It will be real.