Brian Black is the president and co-founder of Harmel Academy, a residential Catholic trade school for men that will open in the fall of 2020 on the campus of Kuyper College, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
The father of seven children, with two in religious life and one in formation, Black also heads Grand River Builders, a statewide business that specializes in historic building restoration. Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond spoke with Black about this new educational initiative that is designed to provide young Catholic men with both instruction in machine and systems technology and a robust foundation in the humanities and Church social teaching.
You are a Catholic convert. What drew you to the Church?
History was one of my majors at Hillsdale College. And it soon became clear that if I was going to study history, and if I wanted to have a life of faith, I needed to be with people who had credibility — and that was the Catholics.
My conversion, which took place when I was 24, started as an assent to historic fact: Apostolic succession, the continuum of sacrifice and orthodoxy from Pentecost forward, couldn’t be argued away.
How did you get the idea of establishing this kind of program?
Harmel Academy co-founder, Ryan Pohl, who is a journeyman CNC machinist and currently owns an industrial training company, and I have talked about this for a while. Ryan’s wife, Heidi, who is a graduate of Franciscan University at Steubenville, received an excellent foundation in Catholic theology along with her training as a nurse. Ryan wanted to know why that foundation in theology and the humanities wasn’t available for machinists and plumbers.
We both had watched kids graduate from high school and face only two choices: college, and the worry that comes with incurring tuition debt, or entering the workforce, with an unknown future and the lost opportunity for intellectual and personal formation.
We thought there ought to be a middle ground that provides more options for high-school students who want to consider a different path than college.
How does the program’s Catholic identity fit into your plan?
Christ was a worker. He could have been anything, but he chose to be a man who worked with his hands.
If our goal is to imitate Christ, then working with our hands is a powerful way to do that. So our mission is the formation of the full man in Christ. The beneficiaries around this mission include the businesses, who will be able to hire good, well-trained employees, and the young men, who have been exposed to the fullness of truth and find a good job out of high school.
How will you make this program sustainable?
We will be raising donations for startup costs, salaries, capital equipment and operating expenses. Annual tuition will be under $20,000, including room and board.
Most of the tuition can be earned back during the students’ work at our collaborative shops, which will also provide instruction in all of the subtrades found in a manufacturing environment. The instruction they receive will equip them to walk into a modern manufacturing facility and feel at home there.
How many students will be in your first class?
There will be 12-15 students in the first year. Experience has taught me that it is best to start small and get the bugs worked out. We have a 300-student cap in our constitution, but the first group will help us finetune the program.
Why is it key to have your students study Catholic social teaching?
I am an entrepreneur who has managed people and businesses. I have come to see the need for studying Church teaching on the dignity of the worker and the correct ordering of our economic life. The decisions that businesspeople make have powerful, real-life consequences for individual workers and their families.
So when companies are thinking about closing a factory or a store, more weight should be given to the welfare of the families affected, not just the dividend accrued. This is just simple Catholic social teaching.
In the United States, college is seen as the ticket to the American dream, and college students have more social status. But elsewhere, apprenticeships in the trades are respected and come with high standards of instruction.
Respect for the working man in this country isn’t what it should be — unless your toilet backs up, then the plumber is your best friend. The social divide is there. Working in the trades can be a great life, but you will hear parents say, “My son couldn’t get into such and such college so he is working for a mechanic.”
Why did you call your program “Harmel Academy”?
We named the academy for Leon Harmel, a French Catholic industrialist who died in 1915. He was a good friend of Pope Leo XIII. If you study Leo’s encyclical Rerum Novarum, you will learn that Harmel took Catholic social teaching seriously. He paid his workers a living wage and provided health care and retirement benefits. He had a chapel in his factory and offered retreats. There is an active Leon Harmel society in France that keeps his ideas alive.
But I also want to make clear that Harmel Academy has no political dimension at all. There is no party affiliation, and we are not pro- or anti-union. Our focus will be on forming excellent Catholic men.
Why did you decide to make the academy an all-male program?
Our primary goal is the formation of the person, their character. We researched ways to accomplish this and found overwhelming evidence that single-sex education provides one of the most effective environments to address character. We feel the Church’s teaching on the unique qualities and differences between men and women provide a strong foundation for us to help young men navigate today’s challenges in character development. We also found a great example of this working at Williamson College of the Trades in Philadelphia — an all-male, nondenominational trades college that is achieving unprecedented success. They have been great in sharing their strategies with us as we get started.
Explain your program of formation, which makes connections between human dignity, the “primacy of Jesus Christ” and “peace at work.”
Work has the capacity to give meaning to our lives. But because of the Fall, we need to regain the spiritual attitude that sees the worker’s full human dignity, regardless of the task he or she is carrying out.
Too often, when we see someone doing a menial task, we look down on them. Peace at work comes when a person feels that what he is doing has dignity. Without that, he can feel dissatisfied.
The primacy of Jesus Christ is explained in Gaudium et Spes, which teaches that it is Christ who “fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear” (22).
To understand man fully one needs to understand Christ fully. The primacy of Christ, in this context, means that we are called to imitate him at work and in family life.
What’s been the response to your plans for launching this program?
I have been overwhelmed by inquiries from all over the country and from as far away as Nigeria. People are excited by the integration of the humanities, formation, community and a trades curriculum at a residential school. Local businesses are very excited about it. They will be our “colloraborators,” and students will be working part-time at these shops during the program. The Diocese of Grand Rapids has been supportive, and a letter from Bishop David Walkowiak is on our website. Many of the priests I have spoken with are eager to have a new path for the young men in their parish. I tell parents, “Your son will leave your home and become part of a community of men, be responsible for himself, and form lifelong friendships.”
You can get a trades education at your local junior or community college, but people are excited by the coupling of the Catholic college experience with the trades experience.