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Elliot's Blog Part 1 (5/13/2018)

If all you have is a hammer, does everything looks like a nail?

The World’s Greatest Gold Beater – Craftsmanship Quarterly -  When I was in Japan, I spent time in a gold beaters shop observing how they make gold leaf. Little did I know then that this article about the last master gold beater of Venice would appear. The article has loads and loads of precious treasures that show how we mindlessly assume that skilled labor is boring and “less than” other ways of being intelligent. In the end, “It’s deeper than we think.” Hand intelligence may not easily tell but it shows.

“Goldbeating may look monotonous, but it is exceptionally complex. The number of blows required depends not on the clock or a calculus, but on how the gold is responding. Marino can’t see what his hammer is doing, only what it has done.“ We say it has a soul because you transfer your emotions to what you make,” he says. “We transfer all our sensations into the gold through our skin.”

Is what we perceive as monotony actually boring? I have been playing with this question a great deal. When we are practicing be it in math, swimming, dance, knitting or meditating what is going on? What keeps us taking the next step or stroke? Is each action and movement the same or different?  Why do we have different standards for repetition and practice for different fields? Is some of it class, race and gender related? Let’s see what our Goldbeater says.

“It’s repetitive, but it isn’t, really,” Marino says. “It’s the beauty of seeing the grams of gold come out in leaves of a certain thinness.” But you can’t easily convince someone that the beauty of the result is equal to the beauty of the process. Perfection only comes with practice, and goldbeating doesn’t appeal to someone who sees only the labor required.

Here, there is a heart and soul to repetition and labor. In schools though, repetition and boredom are frequently conjured up together. We say things all the time about boredom and repetition. We really think and believe we know about boredom and repetition and generalize about them but in reality, we only have a surface level understanding of repetition and boredom. When it applies to something we want to do and get something out of, all of a sudden things change.

As Steven Sloman and Philip Fenbach point out in their book, The Knowledge Illusion, we frequently talk about things as if we know about them but on a closer look we hardly know anything. We talk about politics, history, math, making something, etc. like we know what we are talking about but what do we really know that is beyond the surface? What we consider deeper learning is often an illusion and a misunderstanding of learning and mastery.

When Marino takes a look at counting and keeping count Marino, he discusses his way of counting and then the problem of finding apprentices who think they can count but can’t. The significance of what he discusses has a science to it and he makes a good point.

“They can’t count? “They’re all with cell phones,” Marino says, “and have lost the capacity to keep count.” He’s not just geezing like some outdated crank. The ability to keep count is a function of the capacity to concentrate, which has eroded significantly. According to studies of cell-phone use, even the mere proximity of your phone is enough to distract you, diminishing your attention span and, ultimately, your cognitive ability.”

Pretty soon Charlie Plant and I will be at a roundtable for Craftsmanship Quarterly on “Mutual Apprenticeships and Beyond.” There is so much here where the trades and crafts take deeper learning to another place and so much that is not counted but can be counted. The question is: Why is it not counted? From our Harbor Freight work, we are beginning to collect evidence that makes it evident. We can improve assessment by emulating the trades.

Are you with me now?

While in Providence, it just so happened that I met with David Gersten who founded - Arts Letters & Numbers a nonprofit arts, education, and publishing organization dedicated to creating creative exchanges across a wide range of disciplines including Architecture, Visual Arts, Theatre Arts, Film, Music, Humanities, Sciences, and Social Sciences.

ALN is based in Albany and is a new approach to learning in a community. It is local and international all at the same time. I got back together with David because he knows about the rigor, problem-solving and relationships that are developed by using your hands. In the past few years, David  has been instrumental in returning Cooper Union where he was Dean of Architecture to their mission and vision including free tuition to all who attend. This involvement in a lengthy court battle against the university that was finally won. Now that we are back in touch who knows what we will get into.