Friday, December 21, 2012

What the Books Don't Teach You


Where has the skill of self-teaching oneself new skill gone?

As someone both interested in reading and in technical matters I have a tendency to keep a lot of technical books around. These books usually fall into one of several categories: references, pocket volume, text books, and perhaps most well known and sought after, how-to guides.

Now, in light of my growing experience, I find myself addled by many of the reviews that I am reading below listings for how-to books. It's an odd sort of affliction to find fault with reviews of how-to books; yet, I think that some of those reviews are emblematic of the wider trend away from individualism, self-sufficiency, and good old fashion work ethic. Before we go down that road, let me also say, other more slightly informed reviewers also seem to hold unrealistic expectations of what might be found in those how-to books.

 I think the best place to start is under Amazon's listing of Monster Garage's How to Weld Damn Near Anything. The book is explicitly a "how-to" and many of the reviewers have much to say about the book.

Here  F.L. Busch complains.

The intro states that this book will "tell you, step-by-step how to make perfect welds every time". I didn't find that to be the least bit true. In the entire book, which has chapters on selecting equipment, prep work, gas welding, TIG welding, MIG welding, and jigging, there were NO step by steps. I don't think there is anyway you could go buy a welder and even begin to learn to use it with this book. I don't think the book should make that claim.

Busch puts in very succinct language that he expected a book of step by step procedures. Now given Busch's review I think he has some technical knowledge of his own. I just wonder why he bought into the obvious hyperbole of the title. I guess I would have thought that he should have figured by now that the "how-to" book itself is never meant to be a complete picture.

Further down in the reviews we read of welding newcomer, Zach,

Ok this is the first book I have purchased on welding and I have never welded before. Figured this book would be on the same track as me since I wanted to learn about automotive welding. So if you're like me and you buy this book expecting to learn the ropes on that stick welder in your garage than this book is more like a gateway. Trying to read about welding from square one with this book made me feel like I lied on a job application and was in over my head.

This, ironically enough, is the flip-side of the same complaint that we read above from our more seasoned veteran.

As a student at welding school myself, I can't help but see that both reviewers have unreasonable expectations. Busch and Zach both, based upon their reviews want a text-book, yet why are they both trying to kick it around with a puny "how-to" book?

The answer I think is complex. I think part of the problem is that these how-to books often, at least in the technical sense, occupy ambiguous areas of shared understanding. These books are outside the purview of a traditional pedagogy, yet their titles imply an instruction, or guidance of sorts. Yet, it is also clear that these technical how-to books are not cookbooks either, they are something altogether their own.   

If you look at reviews of a "how-to" books long enough you start to wonder why people continue to buy them even as such reviewers simultaneously articulate a sort of ambiguous love-hate relationship with those texts. What is it about these texts that will make a veteran scoff and a newbie feel over his head?

I think it is in part is due to our Western-educated scientific-notion that imbues our society with the collective malaise that, "its all been done before." The veteran wants to further his knowledge yet he, having gained his skill through his own practice, is skeptical of a more pedagogical text. The newbie just the same is scared by that same pedagogical depth.

Ironically enough, people buy how-to books in the  fruitless hope that they will teach something that books don't teach you.

This whole notion is categorically impossible, yet it doesn't stop the Discovery Channel or the author from trading on the respective authority.

The Half-Wrench

That's enough browbeating. Some of you might have spotted it already, but one of our reviewers, Zach, unwittingly, points us in the right direction.

you better be real good at developing a base knowledge of something on your own

This to me is the essence of the Craftsman. Many technical processes, such as welding, seemingly have endless depth. You can always get better, always improve.

This is what sends seasoned craftsman like Busch towards how-to books, they are drawn by the hope of learning a new technique, or an improvement on one they already know. Yet you rarely find comprehensive breakdown of technique in how-to books.

Yet those who wrench-it part time don't always feel they have the luxury of time to spend on exploring perceived "bland" corners of their craft, such as learning how to lay in a pretty or x-ray quality bead. Thus given their other societal constraints and commitments they do the best they can and seek a panacea and short-cuts in how-to books.

One Ring to Rule Them All

This all bring me to my final point, our educational society, as it stands today is more interested in the stitching together of Tolkien-esque shared-narratives then it is with the development of innovative potential from the ground up. The system is a grand thunder-storm minus the spark from the ground of innovation - that might trigger a current of actionable knowledge.

I can say from experience that the modern humanities higher-education system more or less rejects the whole domain of "Western" craftsmanship. Over the years and before my time, lets say from the 1950s to about the 1990s, people have done just fine with that system as it was. However, that system stopped working some time around the turn of the millennium.

We as a society had gotten along just fine just studying the Western Tradition up until the 1990s; yet, this was at the collective expense of knowledge and skill with both practical science and skilled craft-technique.

What we have today are how-to books that are never really intended for Educated Joe/Jane and thusly "How-to" book reviewers' complaints are to me expressive of the worst part of the epidemic. These people want the subject to be cut into something that it is not, an easily digestible 1 or 2 hour fix.

The simple truth, now no longer understood or taught in America, is that you can't always find a book to teach you what you need to know! Somethings are only learned in practice.

To me this is everyone's loss in our over-educated society. We have people who can write, essays, (yes like this one), yet who do not have a firm grasp on the skill of how to develop skill, or as Zach puts it, "developing a base of knowledge of something on your own." How-to books will never give every little detail, they always show a constellation of dots that the reader must connect themselves.

Unfortunately we have developed, as a society that is coddled, into thinking that because its all been done before it must be in a book somewhere. This is a false and dangerous assumption. There is no book that teaches you how to connect the dots on the personal scale. Society's golden, and cryptic Ur-narrative would be pulled by some on the internet towards one center or another. Yet our problem isn't with the big picture or debating its direction, rather, we need more people skilled with craft to find the creative, practical ways to address existing problems with their hard earned technical skill.

Let me be the first to tell you, that is What the Books Don't Teach You.