Commencement Address delivered at Brevard College, 16 May 1998

Keeping Touch with the World

Michael S. Mahoney

Professor of History, Princeton University
Chair of the Board, The National Faculty

When President Bertrand invited me to deliver today's commencement address, we discussed topics related to my thoughts on material culture, that is, on the culture embodied in the objects of our daily lives. Knowing I had looked closely at the Model T Ford and the computer, he suggested at first that I could talk about them and then link them to Brevard by means of the birchbark canoe. Then he thought twice about the Model T and revised his suggestion: "How about 'The Stradivarius, the PC, and the Birchbark Canoe? That captures Brevard." The problem is that I don't know much about violins, and I feel more at home on a sailboat than in a canoe. But let me see what I can do.

I feel a bit strange standing here in a role generally associated with offering sage advice for the life and career of the graduating class. I suspect for one thing that you will remember about as much of it as I do the sage advice that was offered me almost forty years ago, and there is always the chance that you will remember the wrong thing. For another thing, I'm not sure how qualified I am to offer such advice, since about the time I was sitting in your seat I had concluded after several month's experience as a programmer that computers were not very interesting and didn't have much of a future. With that kind of foresight, I wisely chose to become a historian.

Some twenty years later, I discovered that computers had acquired a past, which brought them under my critical eye as a historian of science and technology. Now I struggle to determine, not whether they have a future, but whether we have a future separate from them. Acquiring a taste for cyberpunk hasn't helped. It is a question I confront not only as a historian, or even primarily as such, but as an educator and as someone who presumes to advise teachers and administrators on the role computers should play in the education of our children. This is neither the time nor occasion to delve into that question directly. Rather, I'd like to share a perspective on it that is the outgrowth of current research in the history of science and technology and that fits with the kind of community implied by President Bertrand's suggested topic.

I spent the first twenty years of my career investigating the mathematical sciences in Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Early Modern Era. It was a history based on texts, through which I strove to share the intellectual world of their authors, and those texts in turn became the basis of my teaching. For various reasons I then turned to the history of technology since the Renaissance, and at first I approached it in the same way, looking for texts that described mills and cathedrals, spinning machines and steam engines, automobiles and assembly lines, computers and information systems. I had trouble finding such texts and soon gave up the search, because it dawned on me that I was seeking the wrong thing in the wrong place. What was looking for could not be found in a library, but in a museum. Our proper subject was not books but machines, not what people said but what they made, not about the thoughts they put into words but the thinking they expressed through their hands.

Once I saw that myself, it did not take long to find others who had already seen it and who showed me how deep an insight it could be. They also made it clear how difficult a problem it posed for historians who took it seriously. A graduate student pointed me to a section on "Thinking about Machinery" in Anthony F.C. Wallace's study of Rockdale (NY: Knopf, 1978, p. 238), an early textile factory village just south of Philadelphia:

The complexity of thought required to understand mechanical systems would seem in no way inferior to what is required for the trains of reasoning in mathematics or the common language. Thinking visually or tactilely has an inherent disadvantage, however, in comparison with thinking in language. Those who think in words --on subjects which are thought about effectively in words-- can think a sentence and then utter it for others to hear. If one visualizes a piece of machinery, however, and wishes to communicate that vision to others, there is an immediate problem. Speech (and writing) will provide only a garbled and incomplete translation of the visual image. One must make the thing --or a model, or at least a drawing-- in order to ensure that one's companion has approximately the same visual experience as oneself.

Wallace goes on immediately to bring out a fateful implication of this problem:

In the Western world, an effect of this special problem in communicating technological information has tended to be the growing isolation of those who think in mental pictures. Theologians, humanists, even scientists can converse freely because the thinking is done with the same system of symbols as those used in communication. Indeed, it has become conventional to assume that thought itself is merely a kind of internal speech and to disregard almost completely those kinds of cognitive processes that are conducted without language, as though they were somehow more primitive, and less worthy of intellectual attention. Those who think about machinery have tended to undervalue their own accomplishments, or to deny that the process is intellectual at all, and to belittle "intellectuals" in turn.

More is involved here than social values. To understand a society in transition to mechanized production means understanding the machines that played an ever larger role in their lives, and understanding the machines means learning to see in them the intentions and aspirations of their designers and using them to recreate the common knowledge they embody, the knowledge, that is, that was common to their designers and their users. Disdain for visual and tactile modes of thinking can mean ignorance of ideas that vitally affect the human condition.

Further reading brought me to Daniel Calhoun's The Intelligence of a People (Princeton University Press, 1973), a bold effort to measure the intelligence of 19th-century Americans on the basis of what various sources can tell us about what they were expected to know or to be able to learn. Among the activities he examined was shipbuilding, the record of which is contained not in archives but in wooden models. In the period in which American clipper ships took command of the sea, designers carved their way to new hull designs and sent the model to the shipyard. A contributor to the Transactions of the Institution of Naval Architects in 1861 took it as a truism that "we can most of us whittle better than we can draw."(Calhoun, p. 240) We can? We can't, but his readership could, as could most people at the time.

This passage brought home to me the profound meaning of what is called "tacit knowledge", the knowledge that no one talks about because everyone has it. One doesn't make a fuss about it because, after all, "Anyone knows how to do that." The problem for the historian is that as times and places change, so too does what everyone knows. Time passes, and with it passes the knowledge that no one thought it worth talking about. That is a problem for historians, especially the historians who seek to write the history of common people and everyday life. For example, I belong to a generation of men for whom as boys the building of model airplanes from balsa strips and tissue paper was a common hobby. In the process of pursuing it we learned to translate two-dimensional plans into three-dimensional objects. No one said that was what we were doing, but it was, and it turns out to be an important capacity for engineering design. Few boys (or girls) today have that experience of model-building.

For the textually oriented historian, common knowledge is hard to get at, because people don't talk about it, and the people who possess it pass. Yet, in ways suggested by the passages I've cited, it remains embedded in the objects people leave behind. The objects were designed for those people and what they knew. If we learn to read those objects, perhaps by using them or at least by gaining an appreciation of what it would take to use them, we make contact with the experienced world of the past and thus gain an insight into the past that no text can convey.

For example, few things have so shaped the human experience in the twentieth century as has the mass-produced automobile pioneered by Henry Ford and his Model T.. As Robert and Helen Lynd showed in their study of Middletown (1929), no realm of human relations, values, and aspirations remained untouched by the automobile; it loomed large in the very image people had of themselves. Much has been written about Ford's "Tin Lizzie".. Ford himself wrote six books. Yet, from one of those books (My Life and Work, Doubleday,1922) we have the admonition from Ford himself that the central text is the machine itself. That is where we shall find his ideas.

I do not consider the machines which bear my name simply as machines. If that was all there was to it I would be doing something else. I take them as concrete evidence of the working out of a theory of business which I hope is something more than a theory of business --a theory that looks forward toward making this world a better place in which to live (p. 2).

There is an immense amount to be learned simply by tinkering with things. It is not possible to learn from books how everything is made --and a real mechanic ought to know how nearly everything is made. Machines are to a mechanic what books are to a writer. He gets ideas from them, and if he has any brains he will apply those ideas (pp. 23-4).

But it was not only mechanics that he was appealing to, or at least not people who thought of themselves as mechanics. In describing his "universal car", Ford emphasized that it had to offer "Simplicity in operation --because the masses are not mechanics."(p. 68) Yet it is clear from the car itself and from the manuals that came with it that Ford expected its owners to maintain it and repair it themselves. And why not? It is also clear that he was aiming it at a farm population for whom the repair of mechanical devices was common knowledge.

That is, as I say, an example of what what makes material culture an important ingredient in education, and that is what makes museums as essential to learning as are libraries. They need not be big museums, they need not house rare objects. What makes the National Museum of American History in Washington a museum of history is that it houses common objects, or perhaps one should say uncommon common objects. But any school can have a museum; museums, after all, start in people's attics.

Together with sociologists of science applying the methods of ethnomethodology to the scientific community and its institutions, historians of science have become aware of the role of tacit knowledge in what would seem a quintessentially explicit enterprise. What could be more completely and exactly documented than a scientific experiment or a theoretical derivation? Yet, we know from the past record that experiments that we take to be canonical, experiments on which central theories supposedly stand or fall, were often quite difficult to reproduce when they were new, that is, at the time they were supposed they were playing their crucial role. What we have learned from contemporary practice is that experiments are most readily reproduced when someone from the original laboratory accompanies them out into the world. As a graduate student of mine has recently found, the same holds true of the technique of manufacturing semiconductors. No one could make the published procedure work until someone who already knew how to do it came to do it with them. And then it became clear:

"Wait, do that again. Why did you do that?"

"Well, you have to do that."

"Yes, I see. But why didn't you say so?"

"Why? Everybody knows that!"

With that hint, historians have looked back more closely at other experiments that were difficult to reproduce and have found unexpected sources of scientific knowledge; for example, Heinz Otto Sibum has found that James Joule's knowledge of his father's brewing business underlay the delicate measurements of temperature that established the mechanical equivalent of heat, one of the central confirmations of the law of conservation of energy.

What everybody knows is acquired by apprenticeship, as indeed was the brewing business (and every son was his father's apprentice). That is why all learning that counts involves apprenticeship. It takes time for our graduate students to realize that and to pay attention to what we do and say, rather than what we write. It sounds as if they're learning a trade. And they are. I don't want to be operated on by a surgeon who didn't learn by standing next to a master surgeon, and you don't want to be taught by someone who hasn't sat next to a master of the art.

Now what does all this have to do with your future? For many of you, I have simply belabored the obvious. You are musicians, and you know about master classes. But consider some visions of the future: of distance learning, of the obsolescence of the classroom, of schools and universities rendered redundant by the wealth of information available online. Whatever you want to know, we are told, there will be a site on the Web to teach it to you. We are promised a world of learning unmediated by apprenticeship.

As we stand poised at the edge of a virtual world, with all its allure, it is worth bearing in mind how much we know through the experience of our bodies in the real world. What we all know, we know in part because of the objects we have handled, the gestures we have observed, the silent signals we have received from our material and social surroundings, and we have learned from sharing it actively --I dare say, interactively-- with others. Many of those things lie below our consciousness, and we cannot articulate them. We simply enact them or perform them in the process of knowing. It is knowledge that cannot be rendered virtual, because we don't know it's there. It is tacit.

So the PC can teach you some things, and it clearly has a future. But, a Stradivarius is a Stradivarius, because we can't figure out what Stradivarius knew. And a birch-bark canoe? Well, once everyone knew how to guide it through currents and rapids, at least everyone in the tribes for whom they were the common mode of transportation. As for the rest of us, we can learn, but it would be a good idea to learn it from someone who knows how and is there to show you. Teachers have a future, too.

1998 Michael S. Mahoney