Thursday, May 14, 2015

Do Macalester College graduates know how to dig a hole?

The first ever post on this blog, which I published about two years ago, dealt with how I sometimes felt like a bit of a space alien at Macalester College, since I was a rural student among overwhelmingly urban/suburban classmates.

Well, now I graduate on Saturday, a member of the Class of 2015. And I would be a liar if I said that alien feeling had ever really gone away. That aside, the education I have received here has been top notch. I've loved every experience I've had with our mock trial team and our political science department. I've found a small but livable niche for my hobbies and interests. But as I think about graduating, my mind keeps going back to one particular experience from right when I arrived on campus.

A mediocre middle school English teacher I had once jokingly told our 8th grade class that "PhD" stood for "post hole digger". She recounted how she had told this to a professor, who was predictably offended. I'm not getting a PhD of course; I'm getting a BA. But I have come to suspect that quite contrary to what my old teacher once said, getting a higher education does not (cannot? will not?) teach you how to dig holes.

When I was brand new to Mac, Freshman orientation involved a mandatory day of service. Our orientation "clans" (each a group of about 30 new students) were each tasked with some kind of service project for about four hours before the official start of the semester. My clan's project was over in Frogtown. We were sent to break ground on a new community garden there.

The project was about as simple as they get. We were met by an an energetic young organizer who was clearly enthusiastic about urban agriculture. She had lots of shovels and an empty lot and some mulch.

Now, I am by no means a "tough" or "physical" guy in my own estimation. But at the time, in September of 2011, I was fresh off the metaphorical boat from Eastern Oregon. Two weeks before arriving at Mac I had been digging a fire line with a Forest Service hand crew near Hell's Canyon. So to me, digging up dirt seemed like a nice reprieve - in some ways I was more comfortable with the idea of digging up this plot of dirt than many of the other goings-on at orientation, simply because it was familiar. This was something I knew how to do.

To my surprise, it seemed I was mostly alone on that front. Most of my fellow Mac students in my clan seemed like they did not know how to use the shovel, or maybe just didn't want to. The topsoil in the lot was tough clay, and most students working in our group could not break more than half an inch of dirt off the top and then seemed stuck. They ether didn't have the strength, or didn't really know how to use their weight to break up the earth with the shovel blade. Over three or four hours, dozens of incoming Mac students failed to complete the ground-breaking of this community garden. I don't know if the project was ever finished.

Several of my friends sent with another clan to perform a similar project (brush clearing) later reported to me a similar lack of progress. As near as I can tell, this mandatory service project was removed from Macalester's Freshman orientation program after my sophomore year. I have sometimes shared my community garden story with friends, and joked that Macalester students don't know how to dig a hole. That is of course a generalization, but in my admittedly anecdotal experience it is one that has some truth to it.

A reasonable response might be: so what? Who cares if college graduates don't know how to dig a hole?

I don't have a satisfying answer. What I can say is that I connect hole-digging with a set of other "practical" skills, which my parents might call "life skills", or which a city dweller might call "street smarts" (I use quotes because none of these terms really seem right to me). Over the course of my life, I've learned how to fix a can-return machine, how to operate a Stihl chainsaw, how to dig a hole, how to identify head trauma, how to read whitewater, how to use a topographical map, and how to clean and shoot a variety of firearms.

I cannot explain why those skills should be inherently valuable to a person with a liberal-arts education. I do know that I have come to deeply value having those skills and the experiences that taught them to me. It's gotten to the point that I am actively seeking them out in my job hunt, shunning further academic work for the time being, and encouraging anyone who will listen to do the same.

I think maybe the best I can do is to say that these are skills that come from a broad range of lived experience, and it is the added range of lived experience, rather than the skills themselves, which is of the most value in my view. This is not to say that my range of lived experience is necessarily broader than that of my urban/suburban classmates, just that the experiences we've had are radically different. I also think that in many ways, Macalester has immersed me in or inspired me to learn about their experiences, but the reverse has rarely been true.

With all of that typed out, I have a graduation rehearsal to go to.