Try the long road!

By

We need experts. Of course we do. I certainly don't want a know-nothing repairing the family heirloom watch. But I'll have to admit that I learned amazing secrets by repairing the lock on my front door. Who cares if it did take me three complete reassemblies, after I had adjusted the offending spring? The unlocked mysteries were worth it.

Perhaps I am being defensive about today's overemphasis on expertise. (I work with an expert in human relations theory who can spot the first sign of defensiveness. Right away, he could have told George III that the Founding Fathers would get defensive over the Stamp Acts.) But if I am defensive, let me at least identify the defendant clearly.

I am not calling for the abandonment of knowledge in favor of ignorance. Despite its promised bliss, ignorance, like marriage, requires more work than its casual promoters hint. In the case of ignorance, people are so ready to inform and educate you on their theories that you require considerable expertise not to know.

Recommended: 'Harry Potter': How well do you really know the books?

What I defend is my right to come to know what I need to know gracefully. Training, credentials, workshops, and institutes can take the grace out of learning. There has got to be room left for learning by the natural grace of messing around. One could even argue that all those institutes, workshops, and programs are staffed with people who have memorized what other people learned by messing around. Before it became "method" the scientific method was just curious people messing around. It used to be hard to tell the chemists from the alchemists.

Now the phrase "messing around" may frighten some. It calls forth images of schools abandoned, wild-eyed, woolly-minded creatures reinventing the wheel. That's not my meaning. I will modify the term to include messing around gracefully.m There is enormous grace, even art, in the discoveries of those innocent of formal knowledge.

What meteorologist would have declared with a friend of mine that the rain had been so light that "there is no water in the puddles?" What linguist could have selected a precise term for the humor that develops among traveling companions after 18 hours without a break in a crowded auto? Yet an eight-year-old I know quickly dubbed the phenomenon -- "Carcasm."

Such precise use of language is clearly not the province of experts. The first task of the expert in a new field of knowledge is to develop an inscrutable language with which to discuss the subject. (Otherwise how can the expert remain an expert?) Consider the classic example -- experts in the field of communications. They have introduced such language barriers as "interpersonal interaction,c "strategies of intervention in group processes," and "group cohesiveness," to replace "talk," "butting in," and "sticking together."

In contrast the graceful messer around begins by asking, "I wonder how that works? What is it? What's it for? Is it like something else I know?" Then he or she is likely to take the particular "that" apart on the spot to answer the questions. But that is as it should be. Learning is meant to be puzzling, or unpuzzling, if the word can be made to mean taking apart and putting together any puzzle.

That lock I mentioned? For days after I successfully reconstituted it I felt elated. With no formal instruction, I had been able to extract, dissect, diagnose, correct, reconstruct, and reinstate a perfectly foreign object. It was a great tribute to the elasticity of the human consciousness.

The lock was so much better than any store-bought puzzle. It absorbed my interest for four hours. I had to develop a system for keeping the pieces in order, prevent similar screws from becoming interchanged, assure that after putting the whole lock system back in the door I didn't find some stray piece smiling at me from the floor. I also had to figure out how the interlocking pieces created the machine. It was like walking through the inventor's consciousness, then walking through the whole Industrial Revolution. How did we get from the sliding wooden bolt to this thing that was smearing my hands and jeans with grease?

Each day when I come home and grab that doorknob, I remember that I single-handedly conquered that contraption's frontier. I know how it works. And it does work.

That leads me to the next point in my defense. Experts could argue -- Well, if you have nothing better to do than spend four hours taking a lock apart, fine. But an expert has the shortest route to the solution of your puzzle. The amateur must rely on the random possibility that the puzzle is solvable on its own terms, that stumbling enough times in the dark, you'll find the stairway out.

My retort is, What right answer do you have in mind? The biologist looks at a leaf. He gives you a classification, instructs you in the wonders of photosynthesis, relates the plant to the ecosystem. These are most worthy observations, but are these the right answers? Do they solve the puzzle of the leaf?

Perhaps only the poet, who can answer almost any question given the chance, can come up with a right answer. Poets and children can give you answers to set you musing. Leaf as boat, hat, cage, necklace, roof, confetti, revolutionary tracts, applauding crowds, maiden tresses. A leaf-and-mud sandwich anyone? Short routes to "right answers" can bypass truth.

I rest my case, for graceful messing around, with a certain 11-year-old. He was giving me a tour of his school. It culminated with a panel-by-panel review of a butcher- paper frieze, created by his class. It began with the earth's advent in the universe and brought us forward to recorded history.His favorite part, in fact his own work, was the age of the great dinosaurs.

He devoted considerable time to each of the creatures displayed. They were carefully reproduced in pastels and crayons. He paused before a pterodactyl. "Isn't it beautiful?"

He saw something I didn't see in the great leathery wings and bill like a barracuda.

"You know, they say that the pterodactyl didn't sing. But I think they are wrong. How could they not sing when the world around them was so beautiful?"

"They" were experts, no doubt. But they had missed the point entirely.

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