Monday, December 26, 2011

History, craft, and a cross-disciplinary approach

Two differing, but perhaps complementary, views on history and craft.

The first comes from someone often cited in this blog, Jake Kuramoto. In a recent AppsLab post, he made the following observation:

Aside from the fascinating (at least to me) content, something struck me about all the typographers interviewed for the film. They are all very knowledgeable, not only about typography and its history, but also about related disciplines like industrial design and art history. I’ve noticed the same about designers in the past.

After reading Kuramoto's post, I began playing around with a phrase in my head: Those who do not know the history of technology are doomed to miss it.

A search engine revealed that no one else has ever used that phrase, but it did turn up an interesting post from Adam Ozimek decrying the sacrifice of art in modern curricula. This moved Ozimek to write his post, "Down with History" (sample: "even people without reading comprehension can learn most of what they do in high school through documentaries and the History Channel"). Along the way, though, Ozimek makes the following observation:

Many serious, button downed, grown-up careers require artistic skills: architects, marketing, graphic design, engineers, web designers, city planners… the list goes on.


In art class even when you’re learning how to do stuff you won’t directly use in the future, you’re picking up artistic skills that have wider importance than their immediate application.

If you've read me for any length of time, you know that I don't agree with Ozimek's dismissal of historical knowledge. It should be noted that while you pick up specific skills in art class, you also pick up specific skills in history class, such as the ability to critically analyze sources and how those sources are motivated in the history that they present. The Sports Illustrated reporter who wrote the obituary for Kim Jong Il certainly had this skill, since the reporter prefaced the obituary by saying that the ruler's "sports prowess, as documented by official state media, often stretched the bounds of the imagination." I don't know that even repeated watching of the History Channel will teach you the subtleties of that sentence. If you miss what that sentence is saying, the rest of the obituary will leave you puzzled.

However, I agree with Ozimek - and Kuramoto - in noting that knowledge of the specifics of one discipline can often be applied to another discipline. One famous example, implied in Kuramoto's post, is the example in which an early 1970s study of calligraphy influenced the computers of the early 1980s and beyond.

This cross-disciplinary approach to knowledge is something that Steve Jobs' non-alma mater strives for in its Humanities program. And while it could have been better in my day - I wish that physics professor Nick Wheeler had given a Humanities lecture during my freshman year - certainly Reed College gets an A in effort.
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