23 September 2007

Competence: The Road Less Traveled

We at Al Fin blog emphasize the importance of teaching practical competence to children and youth. But adults, too, can acquire competence--if they are disciplined enough.
“The American Dream today is to own your own home,” he said. “It used to be to build your own home.”

He had no practical experience with carpentry, plumbing or electrical work. When he went to the store for supplies, he had to describe what he needed because he’d never learned various fixtures’ proper names.

...But Wernick refused to be swayed. In college, he’d studied math, chemistry and physics and learned theories he was sure he could apply to building. His work followed the pattern of most of history’s great scientists: trial and error.

Eventually, he succeeded. He finished the house and passed inspection. It was invaluable experience for his next dream: building a country home in Northwest Montana.

...In 1980, they decided to take a break from education and focus on building a home in the woods.

They wanted much more than a cabin on their North Fork property. They wanted a real home, a place they could raise their daughter, Rachelle.

They wanted to live off the grid and be completely self-sufficient. The North Fork — with no electricity or other utilities — was just the place.

“It was our dream to have a sustainable country home,” Wernick said.

And so they built their off-the-grid home in western Montana. Then promptly got roped into starting a boarding school on their new homesite.Jerry Wernick demonstrated his personal competence when he buckled down and learned the trade of homebuilding well enough to satisfy fastidious Southern California inspectors. He and his family further demonstrated competence when they successfully built their sustainable off-grid home in Montana.

Having demonstrated their competence twice over, it should be clear that the Wernicks are qualified to teach their boarding students something about competence, at their sustainable home in the Monatana forest. But that was 25 years ago. They have probably learned a great deal since then.

It wasn’t long before other parents heard about the couple tutoring children up the North Fork. Soon the Wernicks had four pupils. By 1982, they realized they had a full-blown school and formally opened Tamarack Springs Academy.

Within a few years, the school was full, and it has remained full ever since. The Wernicks accept just 10 students each year — a small enough number to board the students on their property.

Children have come from all over the country to study at Tamarack Springs.

Most heard about the school from former students or people who’ve met the Wernicks. Horn, from Midland, Mich., first heard about the school from her pastor, Jerry Wernick’s brother-in-law.

Elise Taylor of Calhoun, Ga., is the third member of her family to attend Tamarack Springs. Her older sister, Shannon, attended the school two years ago. Her brother, Michael, is a senior there this year.

For years, Taylor listened to stories about the small school in the woods and its legendary fall and winter campouts. When she was old enough to attend high school, she knew exactly where she wanted to go.

Small pockets of competence flower and grow, sometimes from unlikely seed. While there are few Richard Proennekes in the modern western world, if more persons can learn how to nourish the potential of children and youth in their formative years, sufficient personal competence for meeting the coming challenges might spring up, as if from the void.

Is it really important for adults and youth to learn these basic living skills? Haven't we all grown beyond these primitive ways of thriving? Will it not be a few more years before breakthroughs in biotechnology, nanotechnology, and machine intelligence makes all of this "nonsense" obsolete?

Perhaps, although I seriously doubt it. The forces of Luddist reactionism and religious fanaticism are quite strong in the modern world. While western civilisation has acquired a large amount of momentum, it currently rests upon an electronic economic system that is quite vulnerable to disruption. Since modern research labs depend upon a small number of private and government beneficiaries, disrupting the flow of funds to research would not be terribly difficult for a determined and well-funded foe. Particularly in conjunction with other attacks against physical facilities, energy supplies, information infrastructure, etc.

Even under the best circumstances and economies, the technical problems needed to begin to achieve the goals of SENS regenerative medical engineering, ubiquitous molecular manufacturing, better-than-human machine intelligence, and large scale colonisation of space, will take several decades. If political incompetence (appeasement to primitivism) makes the tasks more difficult, it may take centuries.


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