we've been hearing you and Suzie and Dick Dauenhauer talk about The
Axe Handle Academy now for what must be at least a couple of years,
but I'm not sure yet what it is.
Could we start with a simple statement? What is, The Axe Handle
RS: I could
give you a couple of simple statements but I'm not sure they'd really
help. Gary Snyder said The Axe Handle Academy is 'an imaginary
university of proto-humanism.' Another
description we made recently was that it is a school for making
schools; that was really a pun on the idea of a tool for making tools.
For a while we said it was a bioregional, thematic, humanities-based
curriculum. Now we like to say it's a school of ecological arts. Does
that help at all?
of ecological arts? What's going on there?
RS: Well, we
want to steal ecology from the biologists and the naturalists a little
and at the same time bring the arts down to some kind of
responsibility to the earth.
have to come back to that later, I imagine. And you'll need to explain
the shift from the humanities to the arts, but right now I want to
pursue another line. You mention Gary Snyder and, of course, he
published a collection of poems called Axe Handles[i]
a few years ago. Is there a connection there?
that's where we got onto the axe handle idea. The title poem in that
collection refers back to an old Chinese poem, old even at the time of
Confucius, fifth century B.C. The
gist of the poem is that when you are cutting an axe handle out of a
piece of wood you are using an axe in your hand to do it. The model
for your work isn't far off; it's right there in your hand.
poem he is cutting wood with his son Kai, They decide to fix up a
small hatchet for him and then Gary remembers the poem as he learned
it from his teacher then reflects on how this is the essence of
culture, axe handle making axe handle, the model and copy going on and
At the time Axe
Handles was published we were puzzling over ways to get educators
to take Tlingit oral literature seriously. A bunch of us here like the
Dauenhauers or the people at the Alaska Native Language Center and a
lot of others had been working for some years preparing transcriptions
and translations of Alaska Native literature but not much of it was
being used in literature courses in our schools. We thought along with
the Dauenhauers that if we included Tlingit literature in a course in
comparative literature that would also have in there Homer or Melville
or other great writers, literature teachers might see that the same
problems of reading and interpretation come up in all literature and
that they could use the same approaches with their students.
we had was that many teachers were hesitant to get into teaching great
literature at all because they hadn't read a lot of it themselves and
that was usually under duress in some undergraduate course years back.
We were thinking that Shinichi Suzuki, the Japanese violin
teacher, had the right idea; you teach the parent right along with the
child. So we figured we'd teach comparative literature to teachers
right along with their students.
It was right
about then that Axe Handles came along and we saw right away
that that was the model we were working with and since then we've been
talking about it as the axe handle model of education. Nothing new
about it at all. Your students learn more from what they see you doing
than from anything you say. If they see you reading and enjoying good
literature they'll do it too. If they see you spending your time in
classroom management they'll become manipulative little monsters
without much substance to their thought.
the axe handle model the first place anybody looks to improve
education is at himself or herself and asks: 'What am I modeling? Am I
the kind of person I want my students to be?' You practice what you
preach, that's all it comes down to.