Is It Time for an Artisanal College Movement?

In recent decades, as we have come to feel increasingly distant from the sources of our food and of much else, there has grown a desire to know where our products come from, to see the hands that made them, to understand how they came to be. As this desire for artisanal or craft products and services reaches a peak, can colleges be far behind? When the world -- including education -- seems so big and mass-production has gotten so good, many of us crave the personalized and individualized, the small and handmade, something to restore our sense of scale.

While artisanal does not exactly mean local, it does offer some alternative to the ongoing emphasis upon the global and perhaps even the neoliberal. Take, for example, craft beers. As defined by the Brewer's Association, an American craft brewer is small, independent, and traditional. Originally the Association also emphasized the use of barley -- that is, ensuring the actual content of the bottle or barrel mattered. Yes, sometimes craft breweries are equated with microbreweries. And yes, sometimes the definition is arrived at through a kind of via negativa: A craft beer is a beer that is not made by a mega-brewery.

With this is a not-so-subtle message that the artisanal or craft product is tastier, better, worth more. There is an occasionally joking sense that knowing who raised your chicken or made your cheese makes eating it a more meaningful encounter. Underneath all of this, perhaps, is a new economy of scale, a new economy of self-sufficiency, a new economy of making.

This new economy is not so new, really. Terms like artisanal and craft harken to "yesterday" -- reminding us that today's ways of making and acting are not eternal and perhaps not always preferable to those of yesteryear. The terms seem to say, "We want the best of the past without the worst of the past" -- hand made, artisanal, craft without (for example) the hygienic concerns or exhaustion of makers of our distant (imagined) past. We want, as it were, fair trade artisanal, artisanal with reasonable labor practice. We want traditional tweaked with the best of today, what in another context has been called "invented traditions." We want to slow down, not speed up, and time-consuming practices, we know, are also (on occasion) labors of love.

So what happens when we put these notions alongside the idea of American higher education? What I have in mind is not institutions that train craftsmen or artisans (though those exist), but education accomplished in ways that are analogous to artisanal or craft production: a non-mechanized, artisan-produced liberal education, an intentionally small community of inquiry that is, in some very real sense, hands on. Like artisan and craft foods, such institutions do not merely reproduce the past, they reflect on it, and choose methods that are human scale.

Imagine an association like the Brewer's Association -- let us call it the Artisanal College Association -- defining artisanal education. What would it be? What institutions might count? Within higher education, there is an argument that scale matters. That usually means being large enough to be fiscally viable and have impact through the large numbers of students we educate. Some colleges, such as the one I lead, are intentionally small and see small size as relevant to their educational mission in significant ways. Small size allows hands-on, community transformation alongside individual growth. This then is artisanal education, with the push to learning communities within mega institutions analogous, perhaps, to big business artisanal labeling.

As important is the human touch, in the traditional form of seminars, discussion-based reading, human-to-human interaction. In artisanal education these are core to teaching and learning. Here, the skill, the handmade, is the teaching -- and the learning. (And, no, this is not Luddite, as artisanal methods are themselves rooted in particular well-honed technologies.)

So, like artisanal cheese or craft beers, the artisanal college is anachronistic and avant-garde. We are, perhaps, all striving to find the artisanal, either as learning communities or college houses or as micro-colleges. We are all striving to make the artisanal or the craft not the preserve of the privileged - more expensive and thus out of reach - but a large enough part of the market to be accessible, affordable, and enabling the passions of makers and artisans to shape all of our minds.

We should desire -- and demand -- products, services or, yes, educations, that aren't generic, mass-produced and one-size-fits-all.