‘Youth Mechanics’ is the working title for a project I’m starting here in London, a project I’ve been working toward for the last few years. With a tentative March 1 start date for the pilot program, tangible elements are starting to materialize. The physical space is booked and the project participants are on board, just waiting for the final administrative touches. All that’s left to do is demonstrate that the theory behind the project – the very foundation of the day-to-day learning experience – is sound. There’s a lot of convincing to do on that front, and as the first day approaches, I find that I myself am one of the project’s greatest skeptics.
In a nutshell, Youth Mechanics is an alternative learning environment. On the most superficial level, it’s a bicycle repair course. Over a set space of time, young adults will learn how to assemble a bicycle from recycled parts, reclaimed by local authorities. It would be a worthwhile endeavor if the scope of the project extended no further than that; there are a number of similar projects in the US and UK providing a safe space for young people to play with bikes and send them back into the community. There are obvious benefits in terms of green transportation, character building and community development. Youth Mechanics is all of this, but very importantly, also something else.
Follow this premise for a second: Take all of the traditional subjects you learned at school, and ask what intrinsic educational value they hold. Why do we study science, for example? Of course the state realizes the need to produce citizens who know how to read a thermometer or safely defrost a chicken breast. But even the most elementary science courses go into great detail on subjects that probably won’t ever be of practical use unless the student actually goes on to be a professional scientist. One reason we spend so much time absorbing seemingly irrelevant information is that science, as an academic subject, is one medium for teaching certain high-level thinking skills. Even if you never need to figure out an element’s atomic weight outside of the classroom, you’ve learned a method of deciphering information and coming to useful conclusions. As shorthand, let’s call this ‘analytical thinking.’
On the bright side, traditional academic subjects all foster this type of analytical thinking skill, while also conveying some fairly useful information, like how to write a persuasive essay or do the math you’ll need for your taxes. On a more sinister note, though, when we start asking why these subjects have persisted through time, we might come to the conclusion that they are all just arbitrary choices, serving the survival of the education system as much as the needs of the students. Why, for example, don’t we teach analytical thinking skills through wood work? Where’s the A-level in carpentry? To be frank, craftsmanship was never knighted with the arbitrary blessing of the academy, that incredible force that drives traditional education’s less obvious agenda, social distinction.
How education is beholden to the state’s need to reproduce social distinctions is a complicated and incendiary question. I doubt that there are many professional educators who would readily agree that their careers are primarily based around keeping up the class hierarchy that supports western economy. But correlations of class and race to educational ‘success’ persistently dog activists and organizers. Is it possible to create a learning environment where barriers to education, like traditional subject matter and the various social mechanisms they represent, are removed?
Youth Mechanics is a foray into answering ‘yes’ to this question. The heart of the YM curriculum is teaching analytic thinking skills, the exact same synthetic thought processes that are taught through traditional subjects. What’s different about YM is that the course material and the learning space does not play into the common understanding of who high-level education should benefit. Moving away from traditional subject matter and classroom instruction alleviates some of the narrative conflation that makes students think that education is ‘not for me.’
The 12-week pilot will be a collaboration with a UK youth charity and the London Bike Kitchen, a start-up DIY bicycle repair space. While an overall goal of the program is to recycle reclaimed bicycles and help young people support their community, the daily tasks are set up in such a way that they inspire analytical thinking processes and clear, concise communication. If the project is successful, there’s no reason for me to think that it won’t be at least as useful in these people’s lives as their mandatory classroom education. The real test is seeing what they have to say about that.