Why Education Must Be an Apprenticeship

Michael Polanyi wrote an impressive book with the exhilerating title, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, in which he includes a chapter called Skills. You should read it if you possibly can. Some quotations and maybe a reflection or two:

The aim of skilful performance is achieved by the observance of a set of rules which are not known as such to the person following them.

He illustrates this with swimming (breathing is the secret) and bicycling (a proportionate turning of the handlebar that bears an inverse relationship to your speed).

Rules of art can be useful, but they do not determine the practice of an art; they are maxims, which can serve as a guide to an art only if they can be integrated into the practical knowledge of the art. They cannot replace this knowledge.

That is why teacher training can’t consist of lectures and why teaching rarely is effective when it consists of maxims instead of practice. He proceeds to describe the difficulty of scientifically measuring the “touch” of pianists and concludes that much can be done that our measuring devices can’t detect. And therefore, he argues, tradition is essential to learning any art.

An art which cannot be specified in detail cannot be transmitted by prescription, since no prescription for it exists. It can be passed on only by example from master to apprentice. This restricts the range of diffusion to that of personal contacts, and we find accordingly that craftsmanship tends to survive in closely circumscribed local traditions….

It follows that an art which has fallen into disuse for the period of a generation is altogether lost. There are hundreds of examples of this to wich the process of mechanization is continuously adding new ones. These losses are usually irretrievable. …

To learn by example is to submit to authority. You follow your master because you trust his manner of doing things even when you cannot analyse and account in detail for its effectiveness. By watching the master and emulating his efforts in the presence of his example, the apprentice unconsciously picks up the rules of the art, including those which are not explicitly known to the master himself. These hidden rules can be assimilated only by a person who surrenders himself to that extent uncritically to the imitation of another. A society which wants to preserve a fund of personal knowledge must submit to tradition.

To my mind, this passage argues strongly for a different kind of learning than the kind foisted on us by the contemporary school. And it argues that the training of teachers can only be done through apprenticeship. But I don’t want to narrow the meaning and application of this passage. How do you understand it? What does it have to say about your involvement in an activity that is artistic rather than scientific?

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