Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Matthew Crawford on problems

A philosopher and mechanic on finding problems:

When you do the math problems at the back of a chapter in an algebra textbook, you are problem solving. If the chapter is entitled “Systems of two equations with two unknowns,” you know exactly which methods to use. In such a constrained situation, the pertinent context in which to view the problem has already been determined, so there is no effort of interpretation required. But in the real world, problems don’t present themselves in this predigested way; usually there is too much information, and it is difficult to know what is pertinent and what isn’t. Knowing what kind of problem you have on hand means knowing what features of the situation can be ignored. Even the boundaries of what counts as “the situation” can be ambiguous; making discriminations of pertinence cannot be achieved by the application of rules, and requires the kind of judgment that comes with experience. The value and job security of the mechanic lie in the fact that he has this firsthand, personal knowledge.

Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soul Craft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (New York: Penguin, 2009).
This insight in this passage seems to me applicable in many ways. In terms of writing instruction, I think of the difference between a grammar exercise and the work of revising an essay. With an exercise, one knows what to look for, and often, though not always, there’s a rule to follow to make things right. With revision, who knows what the problems are? One must figure out what they are, problems of all sorts, wherever they might be. Is a paragraph too long? Is a sequence of sentences right? Answering such questions is a matter not of rules but of “the kind of judgment that comes with experience.”

Related posts
Betty Flowers: madman, architect, carpenter, judge
Crocodile (“A problem is just a challenge that hasn’t been overcome.”)
Matthew Crawford on higher education

comments: 0