The Art of Imperfection II

In a week, I will return to my hometown--Detroit--to attend the National Underground Railroad Conference. I am really looking forward to this meeting of enthusiasts of the history of social disobedience relative to slavery as I expect to learn a great deal. This year's focus is Women of the Railroad. This is not an area of expertise for me though I began studying a few years back Laura Haviland and Pamela Thomas, both Michigan operatives. I expect there to be many good conference presentations, some connected to the Civil War Sesquicentennial, some not connected to the commemoration.  I have invited a number of Detroit friends who know very little about the UGRR to attend. A few have signed up. They are smart to do so, for I suspect that the future of American wellness will necessitate constant learning, keeping one's mind open to things about which one might have previously had little or no interest. The future of America cannot I think withstand much closed-mindedness. My gut tells me so.

I was actually in Detroit just a week or so ago for a different purpose, and I stopped by a new shop--Flossy's Suitcase. I must have toured the vintage clothing store for about forty minutes. Flossy, after whom the store was named, was the proprietor's grandmother, who herself, I was told, loved vintage clothing. The shop owner has one of Grandma Flossy's 1950s dresses hanging on a wall. Flossy's Suitcase is an example of a rather new phenomenon in Detroit; for years since the infamous Detroit riot of 1967 that only increased white flight from the city including flight of business, there have been limited small retailers, more and more as the years have gone by, of liquor and lottery ticket sellers. It's been a really long time since entrepreneurs of household goods or luxury items took a leap of faith and opened a boutique within the city, outside of the downtown area. Flossy's is actually in the interior suburb of Highland Park, on Woodward Avenue in what is not yet a regentrified area. This fact points to the shop owner's determination to make her concept work, to be--in the best sense-what is being called quite problematically an urban pioneer. This owner is not new to the Detroit area (she grew up in the D), but she is new to shop-owning though her stepmother who owns the business next door--Nandi's Knowledge Cafe--is an inspiration. Both of these women are on the cutting edge of what is happening in our fair city; they are bold, and they have stepped up to the plate before the appearance of the neighborhood might suggest it perfectly safe to do so. The day I visited Flossy's, the owner had the front door open and was playing some welcoming music.

I include the story of this new Detroit business owner in this blog on The Art of Imperfection because I think that this new business provides a good model of the kind of character and determination needed today by a good deal of us. I do believe that we are living in post-industrial America, which is not to say that we manufacture nothing in the states anymore. In fact, one of the most talked about new Detroit businesses is a watchmaker that has made a huge splash. Instead, we are post-industrial because of a scale of production and homogeneity that may not last much longer. If mass consumption of McDonald's hamburgers, Friday night blockbusters, and Old Navy flip flops go the way of, say, chewing tobacco and snuff, we hopefully will never see the likes of it again. Never do I think industry and manufacturing will be able to employ the masses at a level that encourages growth of the middle class standard of living. For this reason, and many have already stated it, we should not still be offering an industrial education in which we simply train people to learn material and behaviors, in other words, to do what they are told to do and to do it as efficiently as possible. Unfortunately, we are a long way from transitioning, it seems to me, to a new model. My own children, who finished high school in the last four years, definitely received an industrial education, and it was a pain for me to watch my children being told that a strict dress code in which a tan belt could not go as a brown belt was preparation for the world of work. Breaking the code came with harsh punishment or what seemed to be harsh to a parent who had classmates who only experienced detention after throwing a chair at the teacher, or at least against a wall.  My children on the other hand spent hours in detention for tardiness or for not turning in homework. Furthermore, it was always expected that the punishment issued out at school would be matched by a dose of punishment at home. At the very least, their father and I were supposed to keep them off the computer or limit television. I did limit television but not as punishment but, rather, so that my kids would develop a habit of thinking for themselves and so that they would learn to create their own entertainments. The jury is still out on the question of whether my parenting style worked.

It is just as much a pain for me to watch standardization of behaviors and teaching styles occurring within college classrooms, but with many of the kids who reach college the high school training has worked all too well. It takes some of them a while to realize, not to mention accept, that I offer questions, not necessarily answers and that, for real meaningful learning to take place they'll have to partner with me in this. Such teaching is not neat; it is not efficient in the old way in which he who recalls the most receives the highest grade and is therefore able to advance. In imperfect teaching, genius may be seen a few times or more a semester and is just as likely as not to come from the kid at the back of the room who has been absent ten times.

An Art of Imperfection may lead to a new economy full of would-be entrepreneurs inspired not by efficiency or clean lines, not by a line of As on her report card, and not by location, location, location either. The owner of Flossy's is not going to get rich selling vintage clothes, but she will make a living. What's more, she is a recycler. Not only is she keeping would-be trash out of the waste dump, but she is promoting the idea that the old can and should be reused. The old is beautiful.

I have had a love affair not just with the old but with the ruinous for all of my life. I have loved Detroit through the sixty to seventy years in which it was constantly maligned or dismissed. I loved that, unlike with the city I love to hate, Chicago, I could go to the Detroit's museums and commune with the masters without hordes of sightseers infringing upon my time. How much richer can one get than to spend an afternoon in the courtyard of the Diego Rivera murals almost alone? The value of this one aspect of Detroit's decline has never been lost on me. The coming economy will be born of people who accept a smaller scale of business and activity and who see beauty in what the old economy would have tossed aside.

To prepare young people to live contentedly and fruitfully in this creative economy of imperfection, a radical new education, indeed new values, will be needed. We of course cannot teach to the test, and, in fact, there cannot be one right answer to any given question. There cannot be one way to write, one interpretation of texts, and certainly not one way to think. Young people must be encouraged in a new way of seeing and of valuing what one does see. Decay becomes potential for study or for artistic interpretation, and the knowledge produced becomes something intellectual entrepreneurs are excited to share in whatever ways they might be inspired. So much great work ahead for the humanities.

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