Education with a purpose; where no one is left behind
In the modern world, we value college degrees over trade-school know-how; and our educational system—and our country—pays the price. The Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades is a good example of effective education, education that actually works, where, truly, no child is left behind; and where success—both for educators and students—is easy to track: at Williamson, nearly every graduate who wants a job gets a job, and that is a great measure of success.
• • •
I did okay with math, up until high school geometry. Then Trigonometry and Algebra hit me. I think that’s where I bounced off the learning train and math went on without me. I just didn’t understand the concepts, couldn’t grasp the meaning of negative numbers, square roots, formulas with two variables, tangents, cosines.
Looking back more than thirty years, it’s easy now to identify the problem. Back then, I thought it was me—I blamed myself for being dumb, ‘math challenged.’ But my career has proved that judgment wasn’t true. I’ve been a carpenter for more than thirty years, and I’ve learned to use trigonometry to solve countless problems on jobsites, from laying out foundations to framing roofs; from installing wainscoting on stairs to measuring crown molding. I divide, multiply, add, and subtract complicated fractions every day. I love math on the jobsite. Obviously, I’m not stupid. The problem wasn’t me. The problem was ‘chalkboard teaching.’
Today, our educational system is failing for a variety of reasons (reduced budgets, teacher layoffs, and deferred building maintenance are just a few reasons—don’t get me started), but one of the reasons our school system fails is because we don’t reach students who learn through physical experience—through hands-on physical contact with a problem—rather than abstract equations on a chalkboard.
Learning by doing, or rather, learning by failing—where you actually watch your mistake take shape, where you hold it in your hand and study its evolution, where other students see it, too, and also learn from the vicarious experience—has distinct advantages, especially for students who learn through images and hands-on experience.
As Matthew Crawford writes in his recent book Shop Class as Soulcraft, “…the experience of failure seems to have been edited out of the educational process…. A student can avoid hard sciences and foreign languages and get a degree without ever having the unambiguous experience of being wrong.” (p. 204)
Crawford concludes: “There may be something to be said, then, for having gifted students learn a trade, if only in the summers, so that their egos will be repeatedly crushed before they go on to run the country.”
Enrollment at Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades is limited to financially disadvantaged young men. Each student must choose a three-year program and specialize in a trade: Masonry, Power Plant, Painting, Carpentry, etc. But classes don’t concentrate solely on occupational training. Students study general education courses as well as gaining practical experience through hands-on training.
In addition to intensive shop classes like welding, boiler control, drafting, carpentry, painting, and masonry, students take required courses in resume-writing, Spanish, chemistry, math, and business management. Williamson offers a well-rounded program that supports well-rounded citizens; ironically, that is precisely the goal the school began with in 1888, and is still the school’s objective today.
Isaiah Vansant Williamson started the school with a two-million-dollar endowment and clear directions based on the Quaker ideals of hard work, honesty, religious faith, and modest lifestyle. Williamson endowed the school with more than just money, he established the school’s mission: “In this country every able-bodied, healthy young man who has learned a good mechanical trade, and is truthful, honest, frugal, temperate, and industrious, is certain to succeed in life and to become a useful and respected member of society.”
Imagine if our entire educational system was based on the same ambition.
19th century ideals in the 21st century
Today, the school is led by President Guy S. Gardner, who fittingly blends the founder’s late 19th century altruism with our modern culture: Gardner is a Vietnam vet and fighter pilot; from 1980-1991 he served as a NASA astronaut and piloted two space shuttle missions. Yet his down-to-earth approach and determination provides what Gardner describes as “an atmosphere of mutual respect at Williamson,” and solidly bridges the past to the future.
Frank Furness designed the school toward the end of the 19th century. Little-known now, Furness was considered a cutting-edge figure in the Philadelphia area–Louis Sullivan worked and studied under Furness, and Sullivan went on to influence Frank Lloyd Wright.
Furness believed in transcendentalism and abolition—spiritual values linked to the first half of the century; he also believed in capitalism and industry—the strength of Victorian America expressed during the second half of the century (the close of the Civil War ushered in the Transcontinental Railroad). Furness expressed his personal confidence—and his confidence as an American—through Romanesque architecture, a popular institutional style of the period.
In fact, Williamson Free School embodies a revival of 19th century values, where learning and discipline were irrevocably connected: the school provides a Judeo-Christian environment—Chapel services are mandatory; students wear coats and ties to meals and classes (except shop classes); guidelines are strictly enforced for academic performance; participation in sports and other activities is dependent upon academic standing.
The goal of the program is to graduate men who are not only prepared to enter the workforce, but to contribute to their communities.
During a recent visit to the campus, I watched freshman students learning how to sharpen and use hand tools (freshman carpenters aren’t allowed to use power tools during their first semester); I watched one senior carpentry crew install final trim to complete a recent remodel on one building, and another senior crew lay out the foundation for a new building. I watched the horticulture students weeding, planting, and mowing the grounds; paint students were refinishing woodwork. In fact, all general maintenance on the 220acre campus, and most new construction (with the exception of electrical and HVAC work), is performed by students.
The Trades in America
Americans may be able to get computers, appliances, and steel from China; we may be able to buy our cars from Japan and outsource our data entry to India; but we still need to have our homes built, remodeled, and maintained right here in America—by Americans. And yet, in this country, we have few educational programs in the construction trades, and no continuing educational programs that focus specifically on the trades; no ‘hands-on’ programs that cover real-world construction issues: How to properly layout a foundation; how to lay block walls square and level; how to frame a house plumb and straight; how to install a window so it won’t leak; how to design and build simple and complicated stairs.
After three years, Williamson students graduate with a firm academic foundation, knowledge of a trade, and an appreciation for discipline and hard work. As Norm Yeager, a Williamson graduate of 1969, says:
“I was one of the original latch-key kids: my mother raised me but was never there—she worked full time. I bounced from school to school with little discipline. Williamson was tough, really tough for me. I wanted to quit. They took 80 students and 7 quit the first week. My class graduated with 53. I quit, too, right after my freshman year. I went out and got a job in a factory. I worked right under the time clock and couldn’t believe how slow fifteen minutes could go by—it seemed like two hours. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life looking at a clock, so I quit that job and went back to Williamson. I was never able to serve in the military, but I imagine attending Williamson was as close as it gets to being drafted.”
With a reputation for producing solid employees, Williamson men are quickly plucked up for jobs in the Philadelphia area and throughout the country. Williamson graduates tend to move up the ladder fast, becoming project managers, jobsite superintendents, and self-employed contractors. Tom Wisneski, Vice-President of Education, explains the reason why the Williamson program succeeds: “While fewer than ten percent of our students pursue four-year degrees immediately upon graduation, considerably more go on for further education within their first five years out of school, primarily because Williamson men learn first-hand to appreciate the vital role that education serves in career success.”
Norm Yeager confirms the important role education has played in his life and career: “They took a guy like me—not the brightest bulb in the chandelier—and taught me a trade; they gave me pride in the trade, too. Sure, graduating from Williamson by itself gave me a sense of accomplishment, but when I graduated, I learned quickly how valuable the education had been. I discovered there weren’t a lot of people on real-world jobsites willing to share what they knew. The general attitude was ‘I learned it the hard way. You’ll have to, too!’ But instructors at Williamson weren’t like that—they cared about us, they wanted us to succeed. And we did. I went to my first job already knowing a lot about construction. It wasn’t long before I became a project manager and superintendent—I’ve taught college-level construction training classes, too. And I’ve loved every minute of it.”
Carl Hagstrom, a Williamson graduate from 1974, shares the same opinion: “Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades produces solid mechanics, which is a word not used often today, unless you’re talking about auto mechanics. But there was a time when people referred to a competent tradesman as a good mechanic.”
While students graduate with a firm foundation in a trade, Williamson is not a Trade School. If it were, students would spend most of their time in shop classes, but they don’t. A glance at their daily schedule reveals that each student spends as much time in academic classes as they do in shop classes. The school’s mission is to “prepare deserving young men to be useful and respected members of society,” and they follow through on that mission.
Carl Hagstrom boils the school’s mission down to “creating men of character.” He adds: “You can read it in their handbook. They actually believe and act on their published commitments. One of them is that our work should manifest a spirit of unity and harmony, and that everyone should be treated with fairness, dignity and respect. All of the instructors at Williamson believe that. We were taught to work as a team, to respect the instructors, to respect each other, and to respect ourselves, too. Which makes it so much more than a Trade School. Where in this country can you get an education like that?”
Hagstrom started at Williamson when he was seventeen, before even graduating from high school. “My mom died when I was young and my father only knew how to push the wrong buttons. I started working in a service station when I was twelve, and wasn’t home much after that—I stayed with friends. Williamson was tough on me but I stuck it out because I wanted to learn. And the stuff I learned was well suited for me—and it was free!—it was a primer on engineering: how to size beams and girders and lintels; and everything about masonry. I even went back there after I graduated to take carpentry classes. But what I really learned from Williamson was how to learn. And that’s made a big difference in my life.”
If only other schools in America had the same impact.