Rethinking education – and craft

Photo: Ceramicist King Houndekpinkou, Paris, France. @Michelangelo Foundation

– Listening to your talk at the conference at SDU in Kolding in January, I got the feeling that you already have an all-encompassing vision of what future education could be – education grounded in practice, cooperation and building a sense of social responsibility in students?

My vision of what future education could be is strongly shaped by the writings of John Dewey, a century ago, and, more recently, by the work of philosophers of education such as Gert Biesta and Jan Masschelein. For Dewey, education is fundamentally about ensuring the continuity of life; for Biesta, it is about opening our eyes to the world, so that we might learn from it; for Masschelein, it is about bringing things to the table, where they can become the focus of our collective attention. All of these are at odds with the dominant view of education as the efficient transmission of authorized knowledge from one generation to the next.

But more fundamentally, they are at odds with the way we think about human generations and the about relations between them. We tend to imagine each generation as a layer, which supplants its predecessor and will be supplanted in its turn. But this view is the exception in human history. More usually, generations have been imagined not as supplanting one another but as working together in co-creating the future. We need to think of education, in this sense, as a key site of intergenerational collaboration and to rebuild our institutions on this premise.

Tim Ingold

Tim Ingold, b. 1948, British social anthropologist and professor emeritus at the University of Aberdeen. His early research was based on fieldwork among Sámi and other Arctic minorities with a particular emphasis on the relationship between humans and animals. Later, he took a growing interest in the relationship between tools and language, which extended to include technology, art and, in particular, the mastery of crafts. Throughout, he maintains a focus on the social dimension: the close interaction of craft and education with their environment.

The classic apprenticeship within the various crafts was based on practice, copying and the refining of technique – what could academic education learn from this tradition?

I think we have to break down the established division between ‘academic’ and ‘non-academic’ subjects. It is not that some subjects are so theoretical, so enveloped in propositional language, that they can be learned only through formal instruction, and others so practical, so resistant to logical or verbal expression that they can be learned only by doing. The fact is that craftspeople are thinkers, just as so-called academic scholars are, and can be as eloquent about their disciplines as anyone else. But conversely, academic scholarship would dry up were it not animated by bodily experience with vital materials.

Ceramics by King Houndekpinkoui, Paris, France. @Michelangelo Foundation

It’s not a matter, then, of merely bringing in a bit of craft to academic study. In itself, this would be no bad thing, but it should only be a first step towards recognizing that all study is about mastering a craft. Mathematics and pottery can learn from one another because both are crafts of study, not because one is ‘academic’ and the other is not. Above all, we must get rid of the quite pernicious distinction, so commonly invoked in these contexts, between ‘tacit’ and ‘explicit’ knowledge’, allegedly characteristic of the crafts and the academy respectively. Not only does this effectively deny craftspeople a voice, it also restricts the use of words to the language of propositions. It is not that mathematical knowledge is explicit and the knowledge of pottery tacit. Rather, both are ways of making poetry together, in both words and other materials.

Artisan: Elisa Strozyk  Elisa working in her workshop Wooden textiles Craft by material: Fibers & Textiles; Wood Craft by field: Furnishings, tableware & Decoration Lars Krüge
Artisan: Elisa Strozyk Elisa working in her workshop Wooden textiles Craft by materia. @Michelangelo Foundation
Photo: Lars Krüger

– Do you see the classic apprenticeship as a more democratic practice that allows more people to hone their skills and become able professionals?

Historically, apprenticeship was hardly democratic! Entry into a craft was very strictly regulated, often on a hereditary basis. By contrast, in a meritocratic society, conventional education is open to all, providing opportunities – at least in theory – for everyone to rise to well-paid professional employment, even though comparatively few actually do. For everyone who succeeds in climbing the ladder to the top, others must inevitably be consigned to its lower rungs. The trouble with meritocracy, however, is that in promoting social mobility, or seeking to enhance the prospects of the ‘disadvantaged’ in society, it merely perpetuates the idea of society as a competitive arena in which all the prizes are reserved for those who reach the top, at the expense of everyone else. In short, it reproduces the very inequalities it purports to eradicate.

But what if the aim of education were not to promote mobility but to make it possible for everyone to find and to follow their own vocation, their own calling? What if we were to measure the success of education not by the earning potential of its graduates but by the contribution that they go on to make, through the practice of their vocation, to the common good? In today’s Western societies, education and democracy have been torn apart: the former seen as the preserve of a cosmopolitan elite which has cornered all the prizes for itself, the latter debased as an expression of the popular will of the ‘uneducated mass’. To bring them together again, we need to think differently about both. We need to think of democracy, as Dewey did, as an ongoing conversation among those who can bring to bear different experiences of life. And we need to think of education as a way of helping everyone to develop their own voice and aptitude so that they can contribute to the conversation.

Young Ambassador: Arthur Veillon Working at Maison Clairvoy  Year: 2019 Craft by material: Leather Craft by field: Fashion & Accessories Craft by metier: Shoemaker, shoemaking
Shoemaker Arthur Veillon at Maison Clairvoy, 2019. Young Ambassador @Michelangelo Foundation.

– Education is closely tied to work, and the types of education we offer are directly related to what we consider beneficial work. Do we need new concepts of work and professionalism?

Over recent decades, the meaning of professionalism has undergone a profound change. In the past, professionals were seen as custodians of public knowledge, tasked with its judicious application for the common good. Nowadays, however, professionals are more likely to be viewed as technical experts who can be expected to be remunerated for their services, regardless of how they are put to use by the clients who pay for them. And with this, there has also been a change in mainstream educational priorities. In training students for future employment, the value of work is measured not by its potential contribution to the common good but by its level of remuneration.

Educational success, then, is measured by the income of those who have benefited from it. The other side of this, of course, is that those who have not moved into high-paying, professional jobs are regarded as failures, and their contribution to the common good remains both unrecognised and undervalued. So yes, we do need new concepts of work and professionalism – though perhaps, without being nostalgic, it is really a matter of returning to old ones.

– Should we be more aware of the many types of work that are not currently acknowledged as ‘true work’ – such as household chores, repair, DIY – but are in fact often based on a high level of proficiency? (Also, many of them are absolutely necessary and often performed by women.)

Of course! It means adopting a task-oriented concept of work. Tasks are things you do, not out of your own free will or in pursuit of self-interest, but as part of your responsibility towards others in the community. It fallsto you to do them. Some tasks are remunerated; many are not. As you say, a disproportionate share of the latter is borne by women. But the answer lies not in ‘getting more women into work’ (defined as paid employment) but in redefining work itself to include what they do already. One consequence of this, of course, would be to categorize as ‘non-work’ a good deal of highly remunerated activity that makes no social contribution at all but merely lines the pockets of those whose business it is. And the greater part of this completely unnecessary work is done by men!

Education is the means by which a society ensures its own future. Its role is to open this future to coming generations.

– You criticize the fashioning of modern education to serve as a social escalator to a well-paid job (which in fact leaves many behind) – what role should education serve, to your mind?

Education is the means by which a society ensures its own future. Its role is to open this future to coming generations. This means allowing every generation to begin afresh, yet in continuity with the values of the past. I believe education should provide the settings in which the wisdom and experience of older people can be brought together with the curiosity of the young in fashioning a collective future for all. This, as I’ve already suggested, means allowing generations to work together rather than splitting them apart.

 – Concepts such as routines, slow innovation and cooperation (all typical of traditional crafts and apprenticeship) have lost ground to competition, superfast innovation and agility – what have we gained and what have we lost?

There have been undoubted gains. Think of vaccine development, for example. We know it has saved millions of lives. This is the problem. It is easy to say that more care for others, and for the common good, is preferable to cut-throat competition. We should slow down and pay more attention to the world around us, and to all its inhabitants, both human and non-human. And we should prioritize sustainability over progress. Who would disagree?

But we still have to come to terms with the fact that this will inevitably entail sacrifice, especially for the affluent who are used to luxury lifestyles and expensive medical care to assure their comfort and longevity. We may have to learn to accept, as our pre-modern predecessors did, that we will have to grow much of our own food, that discomfort, disease and death are a part of life, and that our existence on the planet is subject to fortune rather than guaranteed by dint of our own superiority. And that’s a hard lesson. But if we don’t learn it now, I’m afraid we will only find out the hard way.

– I remember ‘crafts’ and ‘housekeeping’ being taught in Danish schools during the 1970s in the most boring way – but would it in fact make sense to reintroduce these subjects as a way of stimulating a deeper understanding of the resources and work required for the manufacturing of goods?

The problem lies in ghettoizing ‘crafts’ (and ‘housekeeping’) as separate subjects. This perpetuates the distinction between ‘academic’ and ‘non-academic’ subjects I mentioned earlier. What we should try to do, I think, is to introduce a craft perspective into the teaching of all nominally ‘academic’ subjects. And conversely, we should recognize that there is far more to craft than its designation as ‘non-academic’ would leave us to believe. Why do you remember the teaching of craft teaching as having been so boring? Probably, it was because your teachers had forgotten that craft is poetry. It is a way of finding one’s own voice through making things together. But it’s no different with mathematics, history or geography.

Artisan: King Houndekpinkou Atmosphere of the atelier  Ceramicist PARIS, FRANCE
Ceramics by King Houndekpinkou. @Michelangelo Foundation

– Your term ‘response-ability’ highlights a reflexive quality: responding to your surroundings is the beginning of care and protection. Should social awareness and social responsibility be a goal of modern education?  

‘Response-ability’ is not really my term. It has been independently reinvented on many occasions – by the composer John Cage, by the educational philosopher Gert Biesta, by the social theorist Donna Haraway and now by me! But my argument is indeed that the cultivation of response-ability, rather than (or perhaps in addition to) rationality, should be the goal of education. Rationality implies that we should all speak with one voice, the voice of reason, which dismisses any alternatives as foolish or ignorant. But response-ability enables us to live together in difference. It allows every person to find their own voice in and through their relations with others. This, I think, is a precondition for sustainable coexistence, both now and into the future.


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Michelangelo Foundation

Photos in courtesy of Michelangelo Foundation.
The Foundation works to preserve, promote and strengthen crafts through networks, events, workshops. Among other things, they have focused on a master program and the knowledge that is in danger of being lost between older and new generations.
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