Sunday, May 12, 2013

A mimetic apprenticeship

Here is Silvia Forni’s description of an apprenticeship as a potter in Nsei, Cameroon (in her “Masters, Trend-makers, and Producers: The Village of Nsei, Cameroon, as a Multisited Pottery Workshop,” chapter 3 in Sidney Littlefield Kasfir and Till Förster, eds., African Art and Agency in the Workshop (Indiana University Press 2013):

Initially, the master and apprentice work on the same kind of object, the young man carefully observing the master’s movements while trying to reproduce his gestures and postures. The training involves very little verbal exchange: if the apprentice does not follow the correct procedure, the master will stop working on his piece and will step in to demonstrate the correct way to complete the task. (Kindle location 2134 of 9227)

She goes on to emphasize:

the essentially mimetic character of apprenticeship, a relationship meant to “turn the neophyte’s initial mimicry of his master into unselfconscious movements that are masterful in their own right” (quoting an article by Nicolas Argenti, “People of the Chisel: Apprenticeship, Youth and Elites in Oku (Cameroon),” 29 American Ethnologist  493, 502 (2002)). (Kindle location 2143 of 9227)

One might imagine that this sort of training would lead to a professionalism that consisted solely of imitation. Perhaps it often does. But Forni also says that an “ability to cater to different markets and innovate, although not the norm, seems to characterize the attitude of many of the potters who influence trends in contemporary Nsei pottery.” (Kindle location 2163 of 9227)

Now all this is really quite startling. My impression is that a lot of current educational theory emphasizes the necessity for reflection by the learner, and the value of the teacher enabling or guiding the learner to engage in that kind of thought about what he or she is learning. Those propositions seem to be important elements of understanding adult learning. To be sure, it’s not entirely clear from Forni’s article how old the apprentices here are; at one point she refers to “young men” entering apprenticeship, at another she refers to “boys.” But even if the Nsei apprentices are all young enough not to qualify as adults, the seeming absence of opportunities for reflection appears quite unlike what contemporary American education even for younger students aspires to.

It may be that Nsei potters are reflecting while they practice imitating their masters’ physical movements, but that’s hardly clear. It is clear that the masters are not focused on eliciting any such reflection. To put the matter bluntly: this kind of education doesn’t appear to be reflective. If it is reflective, then any process of education is reflective, because people think about what they are doing, So they do  – but if that truth is enough to ensure the presence of reflection, then educational practice needn’t be shaped to add any further support to what is an inevitable process anyway.

The point of reflection is generally thought to be to give the learner a deeper understanding of what is being learned, so that he or she can go beyond merely reproducing past lessons to address new problems with the benefit of professional skill. But on Forni’s account, it seems that many graduates of this unreflective apprenticeship process achieve creativity nonetheless.

None of this disproves any tenet of American education. It may be that more Nsei potters would develop into creative professionals in a different educational system, even if some develop that way in the nonreflective system they in fact learn in. It may also be that potting, a physical art, requires a more physical, mimetic form of education than some other professions – law, for instance. But I think, nevertheless, that Nsei apprenticeship at least raises some question about how sure we should be about the educational tenets we currently embrace.  

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