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Offer a Class, and They'll Come

Susan Notes:

The subtitle of this article is: After Taking Classes, Anne Kadet Is Samurai Sword-Fighting, Terrarium-Building, Solid-Waste Expert,

I'm posting this in Good News because of this line: "You feel like you should have it figured out by now, and a lot of us don't feel we do," she says. The solution? A cheese-making class.


Williamsburger Shoko Wanger says that when making the transition from nanny work to a freelance writing career, she had a lot of free time and questions about her future. "You feel like you should have it figured out by now, and a lot of us don't feel we do," she says. The solution? A cheese-making class. Followed by ballet. And a history of saki. Ms. Wanger says the classes helped her feel focused and productive. Now that her career's taking off, she's not taking so many classes, but still has her eye on a trapeze lesson and a poetry workshop.

The author points out that In the past two years, New York has seen a boom in lectures covering the most arcane branches of scholarship and skill. Don't you think this might be the result of the skills race promoted by No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and Common Core implementation? Kids don't have room to breathe, never mind explore and experiment.

So they become adults who realize they haven't a clue what they want to do and they take courses in cheese-making and recreational tree climbing. Adult ed is a fine thing. It's just a crime that schools are so focused on the Common Core and racing to the top that they can't loosen the tight control of the school day.

I remember three kids--a second grader, a third grader, and a fourth grader (the second grader was in charge) in my open ed classroom (K-6) making cottage cheese. Other kids were busy doing something else.

Parents in that working class school wanted to know more about what excited their children, so I took some sink or float and tower building experiments to one PTA meeting and the film about the Tacoma Narrows bridge collapse to another. And you know where I got that film (which my students watched many times in connection with their own bridge-building experiments)? From the physics department at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. I made a point of telling parents this.

Quirky classes. Kids shouldn't have to wait until they're adults to find them.


By Anne Kadet

Meet the new, improved, super-exciting Anne. Last week, I was nothing. Now, I'm a samurai sword-fighting, terrarium-building expert on the history of New York City's solid-waste policies. And I have the receipts to prove it.

Yes, I've been taking classes. Classes covering highly esoteric topics. And that makes me a very trendy lady. In the past two years, New York has seen a boom in lectures covering the most arcane branches of scholarship and skill. Suddenly, everyone's lurching back to school for workshops on Electric Mitten Making, the History of Garlic and Anthropomorphic Mouse Taxidermy (really). One can only wonder: What does this say about us?

New York has always been a big town for adult ed, of course. The seats of Screenwriting 101 and Conversational Italian are invariably packed with the newly divorced, the recently retired and the freshly fired—folks who are cheerfully determined to make a new start. New York overflows with such characters. No wonder we spend almost a half-billion dollars a year on "personal-interest education."

And the market's only growing. Nihal Parthasarathi, co-founder of CourseHorse, an online directory of the city's continuing-ed options, says his site lists 35,000 classes from 700 local providers. Since 2008, the number of schools offering cooking classes grew to more than 200 from a dozen, while the number offering art classes increased ten-fold. "It's crazy, right?" he says.

But never mind art instruction: These days, students are sampling from a buffet of single-session seminars on subjects such as Recreational Tree Climbing and the History of Punk. In certain circles, the more useless and obscure the topic, the better.

Jonathan Soma, co-founder of Brooklyn Brainery, a popular purveyor of oddball instruction, has coined a wonderful term for the trend: "intellectual tourism." The topics discussed in these classes are usually niche enough to cover in an hour or two. You drop in, get your hit and move on.

His school, a storefront in Prospect Heights, attracts students like audio-branding consultant Adin Heller. A few years ago, she took an expensive, 14-week History of Philosophy course at NYU. "It was very in-depth and overwhelming," she says. The Brainery's quickie philosophy class was a lot more fun. "It helped me get a grip on everything I learned at the NYU class," she says. She's since enjoyed fast classes on the history of meat, Chinese dumplings and the mythology of H.P. Lovecraft.

The Brainery class I sampled—the 90-minute "Trash: New York City's Battle With Garbage"—was sold out, and for good reason. Urban historian Inna Guzenfeld came armed with a slide show featuring recycling-rate equations, garbage-composition pie charts and something called the Hierarchy of Waste Pyramid, plus lots of fun facts. Did you know that the former Fresh Kills landfill is the largest manmade structure that can be seen from outer space? I'm not sure this knowledge is useful, but there's a certain satisfaction to knowing the location of the nearest waste-transfer station.

Clearly, there's an escapist element to these classes. Take the $45 terrarium-making workshop I attended at Twig Terrariums in Gowanus. What could be more soothing than sitting at a long table with a dozen fellow students, creating a mossy little landscape? Instructor Katy Maslow, a self-described moss-ophile, was as encouraging and enthusiastic as a kindergarten teacher. "You're the benevolent creator of a little world," she said. She encouraged us to pet the moss.

While these classes attract retirees and professionals, the majority seem to be earnest young intellectuals. The women invariably sport thick glasses, decorative scarves and shaggy bangs; every man wears plaid. These are the bright, young and sort-of ambitious who, unlike previous generations, might spend a decade after college deciding how to establish themselves. A quirky class provides a sense of direction without the commitment.

Williamsburger Shoko Wanger says that when making the transition from nanny work to a freelance writing career, she had a lot of free time and questions about her future. "You feel like you should have it figured out by now, and a lot of us don't feel we do," she says. The solution? A cheese-making class. Followed by ballet. And a history of saki. Ms. Wanger says the classes helped her feel focused and productive. Now that her career's taking off, she's not taking so many classes, but still has her eye on a trapeze lesson and a poetry workshop.

Of course, there have always been curious types seeking the security of the classroom. Why is the current solution a two-hour felted soap workshop?

Mr. Soma, at the Brainery, says it's a function of supply. As schools like his encouraged hobbyists to share their obsessions for $30 an hour, more folks realized they could lead their own class. Mr. Soma has personally taught classes on Norse mythology, doomsday cults, foreign alphabets and soy sauce. You don't need a degree to teach, he says, just an interest to share.

Schools have also found that the arcane makes for great marketing. Pioneer Works, situated in darkest Red Hook, can't compete with more conveniently located schools by offering painting 101. Instead, it strategically offers topics you won't find anywhere else—Lock Picking, paper robots, Faking Your Own Death--and teachers who are at the top of their admittedly obscure fields. The leader of a recent leather-working class, for example, was the saddle maker for the Swiss Olympic dressage team.

The drawback with this new higher-ed model, of course, is that you often learn just enough to become a more annoying dinner party guest. I had a lot of fun at a TriBeCa samurai sword-fighting class trying to decapitate instructor Yoshi Amao, but at session's end, I was still holding my sword upside down.

Still, the effort makes me more of a samurai than anyone else in my circle. And that, I suspect, is what's really driving the movement.

As Mr. Parthasarathi notes, in this post-industrial economy, we differentiate ourselves by what we know and do rather than what we own. "We think what we've experienced is what makes us interesting," he says.

Alas, it's a bit of an arms race. When I casually mentioned the sword-fighting class to a friend, she simply responded, "Of course." It's time to up the ante. Anthropomorphic Mouse Taxidermy, here I come.

—anne.kadet@dowjones.com
Nov. 1, 2013

— Anne Kadet with Ohanian comment
Wall Street Journal

http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303618904579171751005547482?mod=djemITP_h


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