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Old Ships and Education

Raymond Ashley, Maritime Museum of San Diego


When we say we preserve or replicate historic or period vessels, seldom are we asked or do we ask ourselves, to what end. The purpose or purposes seem inherent to the act, at least to us. Yet if we were to pause from our efforts to explain our intentions, most of them would likely have to do with education in some fashion or another. The exercise is more than academic. Ships are built and sustained to serve specific purposes, and though these may change over time, clarity of purpose is a necessary ingredient of good planning and sound preservation. The suitability of historic ships for educational missions and the value our society places on education itself are therefore critical issues in our considerations.

I would like to suggest that the preservation and replication of historic ships on the scale we now experience it is historically an unprecedented phenomena that also poses unprecedented economic challenges and opportunities which speak to the educational mission. In the normal life cycle of a ship, proper maintenance requires us to impose relentless technological intervention into the natural processes of material attrition that continually threaten the fabric of any vessel. In our own peculiar circumstance of sustaining the life of old ships and extinct ship forms, preservation and replication are cultural interventions into historical patterns of economic attrition that have always defined the "normal" lifecycles of ships and ship types. By intervention I mean an act of collective will focused, purposeful, and above all, systematic. Technical maintenance and livelihood (including education) are simply different aspects of a common process, though in our peculiar circumstance economic well being is also ever the product of tension between normal and interventionist action: strategies that enfold technique for preserving ships and ways to pay for it. Most strategies invoke education as both an objective and a means for taking care of old ships.

As they developed in this country, history museums have stood as something of an alternative to the traditional academic history all of us were exposed to in school. Museums differ from "normal" history in that they rely on objects rather than documents to tell their story and transport us to the past. Until only a few decades ago, museums typically used their objects in only three ways: they collected them, they conserved them, and they interpreted them rather passively. Of the three, the later formed the public face of the museum: all the labeled stuff in glass cases that brought curious visitors to the door and won the disdain of academic historians who saw little value in the "reading" of artifacts themselves as texts. The "public history" of such museums was essentially a public hobby and the stories told by the artifacts arguably vague if not dubious. The epitome of such educational engagement as experienced this way by most of us was the classroom field trip.

Yet, for academics and public alike, there has always been something different about historic ships and the quality of story they could tell. They are at once the most technically advanced objects any society produces, and among the most evocative. Early in this century, historic ship museums were recognized for their special ability to captivate and inspire, perhaps because of all utilitarian objects, ships are the most symbolically powerful of intellectual conveyances to the past and also perhaps the most inherently narrative of all material creations. As self contained past worlds, historic and replica ships were among the first outdoor "living history" museums. More recently, with artifacts bearing ever-greater responsibility for making the past intelligible to an ever-increasing visiting public, modern museums, including maritime museums, have gradually evolved from consumers of professional history to producers of it, a process that has coincided with the unfolding crisis in our educational system. The history museum has become an engine of cultural tourism and an economic force unto itself, in roles that are fundamentally educational.

As the artifact gained power in providing access to history, that power has also conveyed new roles and responsibilities to the museum, including basic education and cultural literacy. From educating people about historical artifacts, museums have taken an increasingly greater role in educating people about history. Again, maritime museums have a special place in this larger process because maritime endeavor has been decisive to the development of our society and because it is composed of endless intersections of science, technology, economics, politics, and art. No other historical process combines these elements with such intensity. None has comparable power to stimulate young minds by mixing in romance and adventure. Nothing can take you where you need to go intellectually like a real ship built of wood and iron and canvass.

The truth is that ships have always been the greatest world classrooms and the greatest laboratories. Historically they frequently transcended their individual educational potential to collectively contribute to mainstream learning. The Museon of Alexandria, combining the roles of university, library, museum, and research institute was situated at the confluence of the greatest maritime trading routes of the Ancient world. In his early 17th century speculative regeneration of Alexandria, Francis Bacon defined the template for the modern science based state in making his "New Atlantis," a maritime culture that expanded its own knowledge base substantially through seaborne scientific hunting-gathering expeditions. Bacon's formula for state sponsored "big science" came of age with the founding of the Royal Observatory (to solve the longitude problem) and the expeditions of Halley, Narborough, Byron, Cook, Vancouver, and H.M.S. Challenger. It has been argued that the two most influential books of the nineteenth century were A.T. Mahan's Influence of Seapower Upon History and Darwin's Origin of Species. Mahan argued the historical importance of seapower from a perspective highly colored by Darwin, yet could Darwin in turn have written of natural selection in the absence of that maritime evolutionary sequence which includes Paramour, Endeavor, Resolution, and Beagle?

As we look at how we might use our own ships as educational platforms today we are again faced with a tension between strategies "normal" and interventionist. When we speak of education and old ships, we are essentially talking about the transfer of information in three forms: experiential, intellectual, and emotional. Seafaring has, for example, been a cultural passion, a trade, and a profession, with the latter an intervention into a much older way of learning and of knowing. For centuries the customary form of education for most mariners has been the inculcation of traditional knowledge transmitted from master to apprentice. At other times, the introduction of new and sometimes revolutionary maritime technology has marked the advent of professionalism as an indicator of status as well as proficiency, and seldom did this intervention come without resistance. As William Bourne complained in his second (1580) edition of A Regiment for the Sea:

"But I doe hope that in these dayes, that the knowledge of the masters of shippes is very well mended, for I have knowen within this 20 yeeres that them that were auncient masters of ships hath derided and mocked them that have occupied their Cards and Plats, and also the observation of the altitude of the Pole, saying that they care not for their Sheepes skins, for hee could keepe a better account upon a [traverse] boord."

Bourne was hardly the last to air such complaints about resistance to social invasion of new technique and ideas, certainly in his case an intellectual invasion as radical as the advent of steam three centuries later.

Historians of technology customarily identify three characteristics of profession, all of which encourage a sense of membership and "interchangeability" of practitioners: learning, livelihood, & legitimation.

Learning: all practitioners have passed through a standard curriculum that relies more on information contained in a corpus of published works than the attributes of instructing masters. Usually the process takes place in an academic setting and achievement of proficiency is signified by certification

Livelihood: Not only is the practitioner capable of supporting himself by the activity, but this capability is recognized widely in society through monopoly of practice and conventions of compensation

Legitimacy: professional organizations form to establish practical and ethical standards and to facilitate communication through meetings and official publications

I would suggest, for instance, that with the advent of graduate level programs in maritime history such as currently reside at East Carolina University and Texas A&M, the growing number of individuals capable of devoting their entire careers to the preservation of historic vessels, and conferences such as this and the proceedings which emanate from it, historic ship preservation has rapidly come very close to transforming itself from a craft to a profession, a process that took centuries to complete among mariners. In historic ship educational programming, we perhaps see the professional approach to learning manifest most frequently in navigation courses.

In most educational programs aboard our historic vessels, however, the older way of learning is given high priority and for good reasons. We are attempting to preserve the texture of an ancient way of life through its most essential means of communication. We have real hands-on skills to teach in real hands-on ways, and we are conscious of the alternative to academic education we represent. As we all know, the level of engagement can be extremely active and intense. We have been very successful in conveying craft knowledge and experience through oral tradition, personal supervision, and hands on learning: sail training, volunteer ship maintenance programs, living history programs, boat building courses, and folk festivals. Through such means, we not only transmit information, but layer upon layer of implied understandings about the world and our place in it. So fundamental and multi-layered is this transmission, that we have never been very successful in describing it adequately. We often find ourselves trying to explain, for instance, that sail training "builds character, demonstrates the value of teamwork, teaches respect for nature, keeps alive skills and knowledge that would otherwise be lost" etc. These are good things, as we know, but they are not in themselves a sufficient explanation for the costly and labor-intensive phenomenon we now find ourselves in the middle of. We all know that there is more to it than that.

I would suggest that without the other way of learning, we cannot really gauge the significance of such experience to modern everyday lives or even to explain to ourselves what we are doing. We need the historical context and the intellectual context for the use of historic ships, even if sometimes we must subordinate the antiquarian urge that drives most of us to completely immerse ourselves in the dense "detail for its own sake" of past worlds. To that end, I would like to suggest that historic ships are perfect classrooms for "embedding" such standard school curriculum as mathematics, astronomy, mechanics, physics, art, and literature within a cultural and historical context, in contrast to the normal classroom, which isolates information from its cultural context. Students under such a regimen would not simply learn the laws of thermodynamics and then go look at a ship's steam engine to see how they apply. They would instead encounter a working triple expansion engine in all its noisy majesty so as to place intellectual events in their proper historical order: that scientists finally came to understand the nature of heat only after they were confronted by the same awesome spectacle and forced to come up with an explanation for it. Or, to take another example, the quantification of nature we now assume necessary for scientific analysis was first made respectable with the appearance of instruments at the dawn of the scientific revolution: navigational instruments. Learning navigation is more that learning to go from here to there, it involves adopting a way of thinking about nature that was utterly alien to all but a handful of people in the fifteenth century, including mariners. I can tell you that it also seems alien to one of my daughters now in the fifth grade, but it might not be if only I can teach her to navigate. Likewise with scurvy and the origin of the clinical method (though I don't necessarily think we need to inflict children with scurvy and challenge them to find a way out). Students should not visit ships only to "see what it was like" but to conduct experiments, to determine cause for historical outcomes, and to learn why we feel about them as we do.

To be really successful in making the best educational use of our ships we should strive where ever possible to incorporate both ways of learning into our educational programs, knowing as we do that beyond the experience and beyond the intellectual understanding there lurks yet a great and abiding mystery that links us to the most significant objects human beings have ever created. By our hands and head alone, it may never be possible to grasp the essence of this mystery entirely, but occasionally some poet, or artist, or writer, or teacher comes close. In 1938, for instance, Lincoln Alden Colcord wrote:

"Thus we discern a great truth: our secret feeling for the sailing ship is based on deeper values than those of sentimental attachment or the perception of beauty. It is based on something very real in life, something of such immense significance that we hardly dare face the issue.

The sailing ship stood for a sociological achievement of the highest order. She stood for a means whereby men were brought to their fullest development. She stood for a profession where only merit could endure. She stood for the real efficiency of spirit and character.

She stood for things the world cannot afford to loose. There were days in western civilization where ships and men advanced together, and the supreme beauty of the craft themselves could only have been a reflection of the life they supported, a life brave and clean, and full of satisfaction É a life of labor and love. And when we admire the sailing ship in picture or story, feeling a vague regret and uneasiness at her passing, it is not altogether the longing for romance and adventure that stirs us, but also the realization, sensed but not wholly understood, that a measure of grace has left us with ships that have sunk beneath the horizon, and that we miss it perhaps more than we know."

I would like to suggest that our educational mission is really a search for that state of grace Colcord refers to - a search with our heads, our hands, and our hearts.

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