Thursday 20 June 2013

A Perfect Basket

This lovely piece of basketry was made by Iizuka Shōkansai one of the Ningen Kokuhō (Living National Treasures National Geographic Documentary that may be "blocked in your country") of Japan. LNTs are skilled practitioners of a craft who hold the flame of a particular tradition so that it doesn't futter out from disuse. I wrote yesterday about apprenticeship and respect.There is a necessary trade-off between training the ignorant and treating them like imbeciles.  There should be a clear distinction between ignorance (you haven't been on the planet long enough to know stuff) and stupidity, but they are too often conflated.  It's a bit like the does he take sugar disrespect for people who can't articulate because some key motor neurons were shot off in the war or traumatized at birth.  When you leave the entire training of students to following a rigid protocol to reproduce a well known finding about how the world ticks, you let them develop their muscle memory and practice their technique. That's good.  But you diss their creativity and the sub-txt is that they will never be as good as Newton, Kepler or Darwin. That's bad.  And the training in technique is usually badly integrated because it is fatally tied up with getting through the syllabus.  When Step 7 doesn't work, we rush on to the next experiment rather than making everyone do Step 7 again and if necessary again, until they (or at least many of them) get it right.  That's science. Rushing through the syllabus is not.  I think we're frightened of putting young would-be scientists to repeating things because the attention span has shrunk to a news bulletin and we worry that we'll turn them off science entirely if it seems too hard.

Now get this: Iizuka Shōkansai spent the first decade of his life as a basket-maker learning the correct technique for cutting the bamboo!  When you get to graduate school and start taking ownership of your own experiments - "if this doesn't work I am sunk" is significantly different from "if this doesn't work we'll see if we can have better luck with something else".  You have to think about what you do and probably write it down in meticulous detail, so that when the experiment doesn't work, you can tweak the protocol and try again.  It's usually the buffers, lads, so throw them out and make 'em up from fresh.

In Ireland we have a parallel set-up to Ningen Kokuhō called Aosdána. There are nearly 4 times as many members of Aosdána as there are Ningen Kokuhō in Japan which has a population 25x greater than our island.  And you may bet your sweet bippy that none of them spent 10 years cutting-the-bamboo, mixing-the-paint, sieving-the-clay-for-stones or making-the-tea and being sent-for-the-glass-hammer (ho ho, robust humour).  In 2003 Gill and Macmillan published The Encyclopedia of Ireland. It is 1200 pages long, A4ish in size and 7cm thick.  You can get it 2nd hand for £15ish on Amazon which is a good deal because the postage for this 5kg tome is the same as for a slim volume of poetry.  When it came out, we sat around  a copy at coffee in the premier science department of Ireland looking for living Irish scientists.  There were about 4.  The Professor summed up our chitty indignation at being on the wrong side of the Arts/Science divide: "If you're an art teacher in a VEC in Kerry you get your paragraph, but you need a Nobel prize to rate as a scientist".

For the boy-scientists among us, Jacob Bronowski's great investigation of the history of human culture devotes ten minutes to making a sword, following the Ningen Kokuhō Getsu in the process of taking the sword through.  It's not a lot different from making croissants (fold-roll-fold-roll) which I haven't had time to blog about but I will, Oscar, I will.

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