Beyond Bread and Cheese

One of the distinct pleasures of being a public elementary school student in Los Angeles during the 1950s and 1960s was the annual field trip to the vast Helms Bakery headquarters in Culver City. It was never quite clear to us what we were meant to take away from this putatively educational ritual, but we thoroughly enjoyed the break from the tedium of school routine. The ritual visit would end with a hortatory speech by someone at the bakery and the awarding of a miniature identical Wonder Bread-like loaf to each child. Some managed to convey their souvenir loaves intact to their homes for parents to admire, but most of us nibbled away surreptitiously for the rest of the return trip. It was the idealized vision of industrial modernity, a place where plenty was to be had, where hygienic conditions were insured by gleaming metal ovens and doors, and where the beauty of uniformity and homogeneity of composition prevailed. By contrast, my husband’s stepmother in Paris would sniff contemptuously at the inedibility of what she termed “industrial bread,” consumed so avidly and mindlessly by Americans. Now decades later our notions of consumption have changed and daily we select among numerous craft beers, artisanal breads and handmade cheeses purveyed for our delectation, reveling in the prospect of farm-to-table dining.

Curiously, though we might imagine a similar trend taking place with respect to secondary education—a move say from “industrialized” learning toward something less mass-produced, generic and prosaic, the reality is more complex. Clayton Christensen, a professor at the Harvard Business School, argued several years ago in his provocative book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns (2008), written with Curtis Johnson and Michael Horn, that there is a great need for individualized instruction at the secondary level with a wider choice of subjects but also in which a multiplicity of learning styles ought to be available to every student. We might wonder for a millisecond if this means a return to the one-room schoolhouse, but instead he proposes a rather different solution, one rooted in educational technology. He suggests that by 2019, 50 percent of high school classes will be accomplished online. In their words, we will see the substitution of “computer-based learning for monolithic learning.” Teachers, now already repurposed by some as mere content providers, will largely be replaced by laptops, tablets and other smart  devices, and the remaining faculty will function as coaches and guides, individually helping students locate appropriate online sites and resources.

What are we to make of this? Why is it that as we demand more human involvement in the production of our comestibles and potables, our discussions around education alight on electronic instruction, distance learning, online CBEs (competency-based education) directed toward acquiring specific skill sets and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), trajectories that putatively seem more tailored to the individual, yet tend towards the industrial?

It strikes me as unlikely that half of all secondary teachers will be rendered obsolete in three to four years, even as I believe that technology will be more and more important for all of us, especially in education. But why not? Like Christensen, I believe we are largely autodidacts, that most of what we learn in our lifetimes we learn on our own in various ways including nowadays much online. But what happens in the classroom, especially in secondary classrooms, should not be merely the acquisition of information, competencies or credentialing, areas on which he places great emphasis.

Ideally, three things should take place. First and foremost is the issue of introduction to new worlds, worlds that we could not have imagined otherwise. This hitherto unknown world might take the form of an idea, a system of thought, a culture, a book or some other possibility. As a side note, one problem of many online programs is that we can only choose what we think we want or need to know, thereby foreclosing a host of possibilities. As with searches, we look for what we know we want to know. How can we choose what we don’t yet know exists?

Second, the classroom should introduce us to the possibility of deep sustained engagement and wonder with ideas, the world and life around us. Engagement and wonder are modes of being that occur within the individual but are nurtured and flourish best in the skein of relationship. When we witness a magnificent sunset or achieve a successful result in a scientific experiment, we want to show others, to have them share in the experience of engagement and accomplishment. Teachers and students together can help point one another toward this possibility.

Finally, the classroom should encourage introspection and self-reflection and critique. We must learn to question our own assumptions and recognize the limitations of our own thought, thereby expanding our horizons. Skepticism is often misunderstood as a cynical, nihilistic or overly materialist viewpoint, one that eschews the possibility of transcendence. Might we not view it as a mode of self-critique in which the mind examines itself, a mode that is critical not only for empirical study, but also for the cultivation of alternate viewpoints and perspectives, and hence, one that creates an
opening for compassion?

Returning to our original point of departure, if artisanal activity is thought to be so desirable for our bodies and sensibilities, what about our minds and hearts? And ought we not to understand its constituent features? What makes artisanal activity artisanal? And ultimately, can education be artisanal?

If I were to enumerate the features associated with artisanal activity, I would include these five aspects:

1. The grounding in the personal, the relational.

2. The notion that the artisanal tends to confine itself to small batches that are known one by one, tested and yet varied in nature.

3. The idea of terroir, those constituent concrete features of contextual origin, both in time and place.

4. An embrace of possibility. Not either/or but, both/and. Hence artisans, while often working with traditional materials or techniques, rarely completely eschew the new, whether of form, content or instrumentality.

5. The notion of perfecting the craft—that each endeavor is not a replica of what came before, but rather creative experimentation within a limited framework towards some new possibility, something better, something approaching the ideal.

Industrial goods, e.g. commodities, are often marketed as if they were artisinally-produced. We have only to think back to a brand of coffee and its spokesman, Juan Valdez, clad in his poncho, and accompanied by his burro, to realize that central to artisanal goods is the importance of the personal and the relational.  But we realize that Juan Valdez and his burro are fictions of artisanal endeavor, a construction devised to persuade us as consumers of its reality. It is the inauthenticity of advertisement that points back to its own emptiness, the absence of the authentically real and relational. It is our relationship to one another and the constituents of our work that form the basis of our craft, whether it be grapes, flours, milk curds or books. It is also our relationships with one another; more often than not, artisanal activity embraces the atelier, individuals sharing space and working on a shared project or goal.

By contrast, the secondary classrooms of teachers and students are in truth places of artisanal activity. The relationship between teacher and students and student and student is personal, authentic and
volatile. No matter how much the teacher plans and writes notes, we can never teach the same class twice (thank you Heraclitus!).
It is impossible to mass-produce what goes on in a classroom, even with the same teacher and same students. As a senior colleague of mine used to claim, it all depends on the barometric pressure of the moment. This is also the excitement of the classroom; it is as if an alchemical experiment is underway and straw may be transmuted into gold. It is not that the students are straw and the teacher gold. Rather the students and teachers together are the straw aspiring to be transformed by their shared experience, their relationship. The idea of relation is rooted etymologically in the idea of reference, the idea of bringing back. In relationships, we bring one another back to ourselves through reference. It is through the between-ness and among-ness, the dialogue, the conversation, and the shared space of framed silence that signals the potentiality of significance and meaning.

Much discussion has occurred of late about whether small class size is really that important. I wonder if it has so much to do with aggregate size or rather the absence of anonymity and the ability of all voices to be heard and to engage. Rather than worry whether six, or a dozen or twenty is the ideal size, maybe it’s the ability to know each member of the group, to enumerate and to differentiate among them. Artisans know that while they might try to produce in multiples, there is always a limit to their ability. They must test each batch to see if in fact it has been successful in its generation, in its production. It is the non-scalability of artisanal activity that renders it quaint to contemporary eyes. As a teacher, I want to know each of my students, not only by name, but by nature and experience. And I want them to know me, and one another, that way as well. We are not interchangeable, just as classes are not replicable.

Wine connoisseurs pride themselves on understanding the terroir of a particular vintage, by which they mean the alkalinity and tilth of the soil, the cardinal orientation of the vineyard, the elevation of the land, the amount of moisture in the air, the proximity to the sea, the prevalence of breezes and on and on. Classrooms too are rooted in particular places, in cultures, in geographies and in history. One of the virtues of online learning is its ability in part to transcend the particulars, the local. Hence, children who live in areas where there are few resources still have access virtually to a host of heuristic devices. At the same time, we need to acknowledge we can never completely transcend our concrete localized reality unless we want to live entirely virtually, engendering the phenomenon known in Japan as hikikomori (those exhibiting acute social reclusion).

The current craze toward best practices (were we ever deliberately engaging in worst practices or only in pretty good ones?) has
occluded for us the realization that while best practices may be helpful as a starting point or even as an occasional salutary corrective, they cannot function as a recipe, followed faithfully and reproducible. Best practices often seem to function monolithically, neglecting the concrete particularity of a particular organization or institution. So many seem convinced that if only they latch onto these sanctioned actions and steps, they will have fulfilled all that they can. Instead terroir teaches us that success is inevitably a product of the particular, the local and can only be discovered by knowing our place, literally and figuratively.

Confronting a dazzling array of technological resources, all of us as educators stumble about, wondering what to make of it. Maybe this is what we should be doing—trying out possibilities, imagining how to use these online resources and tools. But our inability to sustain such a playful posture has resulted in an either/or mentality that imagines that educational technology necessarily subsumes and precludes older technologies often to the detriment of learning. Frequently considerable expense is laid out on these new technologies such as whiteboards, those shared electronic canvases on which we could all write and collaborate, but whose utility was constrained by the cumbersome. Most universities and schools still have these sitting vacantly and unused in classrooms. Even more problematic was the embrace of tablets as one-stop resources for students that precluded books. So many schools became tablet schools in the last seven or eight years in which all learning was to happen through the device, disposing of the books in the library, whose function was to house the collaborations allowed by such devices. While the collaborative aspect was wonderful, the pity was that educators allowed themselves to believe that the reading process involving codices (books) could be reproduced online. What we have discovered is that online reading is different from reading in hard copy. My students at Brown participated in an experiment with me in which we tried to use Kindles and iPads to do all our work. In the end, they begged me in the future to use hard copies of all primary readings and conceded they would accept shorter secondary readings to be placed online. It is not only a function of how we read, but also our ability to read longer works more readily in hard copy than
electronically. For most people, online reading is suited well for journal articles, entries and briefer works. With the elimination of books from libraries, what we find is that students have read many fewer longer works, most settling for Wikipedia summaries or movie adaptations. Reading a novel or some other work of over a hundred pages is centrally tied to a kind of cognitive development, that ability to engage in sustained, developed thought and argument, which is critical for thinking at more sophisticated levels. In discounting the importance of reading and reading longer works, we have inadvertently encouraged a cut-to-the-chase mentality at the same time ironically that we aspire to teach our students to learn to construct complex algorithms. Rather than reflexively engage in paradigms of re- or dis-placement and valorizing without sufficient consideration notions such as “disruptive innovation,” perhaps a both/and approach is warranted in which we avail ourselves wholeheartedly of online resources and hard copy books, in which we learn about algorithms and read novels and histories, in which newer and older technologies complement one another. Artisans are rarely naive luddites, clinging to traditional ways without questioning them. Usually they are interested in new technologies as well as older techniques that help them perfect their craft—witness the advances in winemaking for one example.

The last fundamental element of artisanal activity encompasses all the others: the notion that one is always perfecting one’s craft. Every student of medieval English literature well remembers Chaucer’s famous lament, “The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne…” (Life is so short and the craft takes so long to learn). The goal in artisanal endeavor is the mastering of one’s art, one’s craft patiently and steadily. Hence, creative experimentation becomes a necessity; there is a kind of playfulness about artisanal work. Rather than following dicta set by others without reconsideration, the craftsman aspires to something more ideal, a transcendent possibility in both small and large ways. Often in attempting to reach that place of transcendence, we fall short. Hence, failure is also part of the artisan’s experience as a form of learning and polishing. In both teaching and learning, we move between confirming and solidifying the boundaries we know and simultaneously playfully exceeding, questioning and transgressing those very frameworks as a form of perfecting our education.

And as a last caveat, lest we mistake the teacher for the artisan and the student for the clay, we must realize that both teaching and learning are artisanal activities and that both teachers and students as holders of dual passports are denizens of each realm. Finally, rather than merely following in the wake of their teachers, students craft their own intellectual journeys. Basho the renowned seventeenth-century haiku poet, when approached by an aspiring student in awe of his literary prowess, remarked:

Ware ni niru na futatsu ni wareshi makuwauri

Do not strive to be like me–

As identical as two halves of a split melon.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *