Thursday, September 6, 2012

Unconscious Competence

I had an interesting chat with my dad today, somewhat centered around this idea--unconscious competence. It's of some note today that many people--and I should qualify that by saying a great number of people I've come into contact with who also happen to be right around my demographics--aren't merely impressed when someone knows their stuff.  Rather, they are completely flabbergasted.  It's like magic to them when someone simply knows the answer to a question.

Now, I'm the kind of guy who sort of expects this from people, in a limited way.  When I ask a plumber about fixing the pipes, I imagine his answer will be sound and to the point, and the problem will be solved.  If I ask my physicist friend about how lasers work, I can reasonably expect an enlightening lecture beginning with the dual, wave-particle nature of light (you can perhaps see from my make-believe that I am not unconsciously competent at physics).

We're in an era when a broader sense of capability seems to be disappearing.  It began with the specialization of labor.  No wasted motion on the assembly line; you do one thing, and you do it for 8-10 hours every day.  Here's an example of what I mean by "capability disappearing:" colleges are running first-year introductory courses to doing your laundry.  I find this remarkable, and I'm not a laundry wizard myself.  No, what this says to me is something a little more pervasive.  I don't expect your average college freshman guy to know exactly how much soap to use, or the reason for separating lights and darks, or the rationale behind hand-washing cashmere sweaters.  That's all ok, I'll give them a pass.

What worries me is that they can't even read the directions!  Directions printed on the washing machine, listed on the side of their bottle of Tide, and if that wasn't enough, sewn into every single piece of clothing they own! 

What worries me is that this sort of behavior--which extends far beyond the laundry room--is indicative of complete unwillingness to problem-solve and an inability to think critically about...anything (possibly).

This piece could very easily drift into faux-nostalgia for a time when "men were men" and could just do stuff.  I don't want it to go there--though certainly when I think about all the things my mom and dad, and even more so my grandparents just seem to know how to do, I sort of want it to go there.  Surely, everybody knows how to do some things.  Some kids are just great with computers, others really do get how to build things solidly.  They seem to be able to do some of these things without formal training.  It's not really until school that young people find some subject of interest, and start to build a working knowledge of it.  This isn't bad, in itself.

My concern with writing this started out being a sense of general in-capacity.  What I think, over the course of these short paragraphs, has really started to bother me, is that this sort of system we're in is one in which a natural curiosity about the world and all the things, situations, people, places, and whatever else, is prized.  My composition students were awed by the fact that I seemed to know everything about everything.  I'm not saying that I do, but when they would choose their own paper topics, I would usually have something intelligent to say about that topic.  They couldn't understand how I knew those things--I'm an English teacher, and that's it.  I tried to tell them, the world is a fascinating place, full of compelling people doing some truly amazing things--why wouldn't I want to know about them all?

What happened to natural and creative curiosity?  Did anything happen to it, or am I just missing it?

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