Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Knowledge or Wisdom?

One morning Shelagh Rogers was interviewing a fellow who made baskets on the CBC. From out in the Yukon some place. He told a story about learning to pick ash wood from the bush with his grandfather. The two of them got up at the crack of dawn to hit the trail at first light. As they wandered through the bush, the young man would keep pointing out trees to his grandfather. The grandfather would glance over and say 'No - not that one'. After an hour of this, the young fellow was getting pretty tired of it. 'So grandfather, just what IS it you are looking for'? The old man replied 'I'm waiting for a tree to tell me it wants to be made into baskets'.

Ok - if you look at this one way its a story about First Nations wisdom.

Now, I had a situation a couple of years back where I was putting together a museum exhibit. I had a tent to make and a small house replica to build for this presentation. I had a friend work for a week to help me with a lot of the grunt work and raw labour. The tent had a set of ship oars for the frame. The house needed a large number of poles for the rafters. I walked through the bush with Dave to harvest the required timber. He kept going up to saplings and saying 'what about this one?'
Now, I had seen a particular small grove of pines a couple of years back. One cone had hit the ground and a cluster of trees had grown up. They were too close together, so were growing straight, tall and with few branches. I figured they would be just about the right diameter for the oars. Mind you - I could only vaguely remember where the stand of saplings I wanted WAS inside the forest. So I kept saying 'No, not that one', as I kept trying to remember just where that thicket was.

Now - I'm a western European. So my * explanation * was framed in my scientific descriptions. I told Dave about the ideal sapling for the project, and told him about the special situation which would create the grove like the one I had found years before and how now I was now trying to re-trace my steps. I chose to directly impart the * knowledge * based on my own experience to a younger man.

Too often I personally find that First Nations are attributed with * wisdom * merely because of the method being used to transfer raw information. The young man with his grandfather might not understand what it actually is that the old man is looking for. Since the objective here was basket making, there is no doubt that a set of merely technical requirements were being applied. How old the tree, how straight, condition of the wood, and perhaps its location related to other trees. Maybe the young man would never learn what exactly his grandfather was looking for - the factors he was judging that told him 'this tree wants to be taken'. Its hard not to see this as * reducing * the flow of information, and concentrating it in the hands of people with long experience only. Grandfather appears wise, but how effective is he REALLY at communicating his knowledge?

I was willing to give Dave the full measure of my experience. Of course Dave himself is part of that same European heritage - where information is gathered directly through questions and answers.

I find myself constantly applying direct physical experience, often via the senses not apparently involved in a physical situation. I normally do try to explain directly what it is that I'm observing when asked what the heck I'm doing.

I do have knowledge - but does the manner I chose to educate make me less 'wise'?

1 comment:

Unnr said...


Ok, so I have to aruge with everything, right, I'm Unnr.

So, devil's advocate:
"The kid" is learning more by actually querying the knowledgeable one than he would by recieving a single pass of information. He is also learning more at once than "Dave," because he's getting background and foreground information in one pass.

You may give him more data in one answere by explaining the condidtions, etc, western style, but you are not teaching him how to recognise those features -- you're assuming he already knows.

The old indian is teaching in a more integrated manner, by including both information about how to recognise a supple tree as well as that a supple tree is needed. AND he's allowing the kid to direct the learning experience by letting the kid query him rather than just suck up what he's given in terms of knowledge.

This is why I'm a terrible student in the usual style of teaching around here. I *hate* to suck up what I'm given, I want to query the teacher...

That said, I think this is a "he's right and he's right -- they can't both be right" situation. No style matches every student ;)


February 15 - May 15, 2012 : Supported by a Crafts Projects - Creation and Development Grant

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