Once upon a time, schools of thinkers were named after how their members moved. The Peripatetics were ‘those who walked’ – students who paced around a garden with their teacher. Some didn’t move much. The Stoics were named after a porch – the ‘stoa’, because the founder of their school taught the public while seated at his doorstep.
I think that walking and sitting are both good ways of getting around an idea. Here’s one idea: what exactly is a skill?. If we are going to share skills, we had better know what they are!
If, like the Peripatetics, you walk around a subject, picking up twigs and tossing pebbles around, you end up finding very useful material out of what seems irrelevant.
Similarly, like the Stoics, if you pick a good, sunny spot and stop to think about what’s on your mind, you can get some interesting insights.
I’d like to share my insight on something I found while on a long walk through the web. (or surf through the web? Whoops – I just broke my metaphor).
An article called How to Live Without Irony probably at first glance wouldn’t seem to offer anything relevant to our subject. But I want to point out two paragraphs:
Our incapacity to deal with the things at hand is evident in our use of, and increasing reliance on, digital technology. Prioritizing what is remote over what is immediate, the virtual over the actual, we are absorbed in the public and private sphere by the little devices that take us elsewhere.
While we have gained some skill sets (multitasking, technological savvy), other skills have suffered: the art of conversation, the art of looking at people, the art of being seen, the art of being present. Our conduct is no longer governed by subtlety, finesse, grace and attention, all qualities more esteemed in earlier decades. Inwardness and narcissism now hold sway.
The first paragraph might be a little harsh to digital technology. sure, it “takes us elsewhere”, but isn’t this useful? Don’t we sometimes have to escape our situation and take a walk to clear our heads?
But the choice of words is still pertinent: we don’t just make “use of” gadgets, we have a “reliance” on them. Maybe by never being lost, never being without a smartphone on hand, we never develop the mental map of the neighbourhood that the neighbour developed? We are absorbed in the “public and private” spheres. Maybe escaping boredom with a few texts is healthy in public (if you ever ride the 94, 95, 96, or 97, you know how dull the public sphere is). But in private?
We walk homeward with the second paragraph. With new technology, the article states, we win some and lose some. Joseph Schumpeter invented the term ‘creative destruction’ to describe how the new replaces the old, and makes the old forgotten. What have we lost? “Conversation”, “looking at people”, “the art of being seen” and “being present”.
Somewhere, I heard of a middle-aged manager in an office who became lonely in the last few years. He found that he couldn’t converse with the younger staff any more. They were all of the current generation: wearing headphones in the office, walking around with eyes downcast, never stopping at the water cooler.
What do we do if we, the young, have lost these vital ‘soft skills?’ Do we share ourselves while we share our ‘hard’ skills? Do we learn presence while we teaching woodworking?