Ron Scollon  

The Axe Handle Academy: A Conversation with Ron Scollon


Background readings: 

Axe Handles, Gary Snyder

Mencius, Mencius

Continuous Harmony, Wendell Berry

Elements of a Post-liberal theory of education, CA Bowers 

The First Day: Thematic Comparative Literature 

In July on sunny mornings you can often find Ron Scollon sitting on a slabwood bench on the porch of The Gutenberg Dump enjoying a cup of Darjeeling tea.  By eight o'clock the sun is already high and on the day we began this interview it was backlighting half a dozen fishing boats on their way into Haines Harbor after a night of fishing. The Black Current Press found Ron on this day with his guitar.  He was playing a set of Preludes by Manuel Ponce. His mind  was on anything but the Axe Handle Academy when we began the interview. 

BCP: Ron, 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 Academy?

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?

BCP: School 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.

BCP: We'll 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?

RS: Yes, 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.

In Snyder's 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 on.

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.

The problem 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.

In 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.

[i] Gary Snyder, Axe Handles (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1983).

the full text may be downloaded here.....



the academy

the curriculum


life of the land

comparative culture studies

responsive communication