Education in Craftsmanship

Education in Craftsmanship


Violin making at the North Bennet Street School.

Craftsmanship is the watchword of the North Bennet Street School in Boston, which offers rigorous training in eight disciplines. Located in an early-19th-century brick building near the historic Old North Church, the school has been training people for employment for 125 years, pioneering the concept of placing students in a classroom with a master to learn a trade. The Boston philanthropist Pauline Agassiz Shaw opened the school as the North End Industrial Home in 1880 to serve immigrants, and in 1885, when the focus shifted from employment opportunity to education, it was renamed the North Bennet Street Industrial School. Historical highlights include the adoption of a unique Swedish woodworking program; the Saturday Evening Girls Club, which gave rise to a popular pottery program; and the directorship (1915-54) of George Greener, who introduced many crafts programs, including several for returning veterans.

By 1985, with the school's social service programs transferred to other agencies, the word "industrial" was dropped, and the mission became solely teaching craftsmanship. Today, the disciplines are bookbinding, calligraphy and paper arts, carpentry and home, jewelry and metals, locksmithing, marketing, woodworking and musical instruments. The last includes piano technology (introduced in the 1950s) and violin making and repair. "The diverse programs we offer are connected by a common commitment to the development of the highest level of hand skills," says Miguel Gómez-Ibáñez, president of NBSS since 2006. "The aim of the school is to continue to produce the most highly skilled makers in each of our fields."

The approach is based on the best part of the apprenticeship system, with practical projects the main substance of students' training. Beginning with the first assignment and continuing through the course, a student takes on increasingly difficult work, a method that develops not only hand skills but also an understanding of procedures used in the trade. The courses have been developed with the help of employers and tradespeople in each field.

The full-time faculty comprises 17 instructors, and there are visiting lecturers. The average student body is 170, and the school graduates roughly 90 trained craftspeople a year from its full-time programs. In the fall and spring, 150 part-time workshops are offered. "We don't want to grow," says Gómez-Ibáñez, "we just want to get better at what we do." Graduates receive a diploma, and can work toward a bachelor's or master's through NBSS's associations with other degree-granting Boston schools.

For Gómez-Ibáñez, an architect who trained at NBSS in cabinet making and was president of the Furniture Society for four years, it all comes down to the primacy of craftsmanship. "One key to the mind-set here is that we are not an art school," he says. "We don't call our graduates artists, although their work is often considered art."