02 August 2009

On wire-walking and beyond...

On 7 August 1974, Philippe Petit walked a tightrope between the twin towers of the (then) World Trade Center. He did so with no authority or sponsorship (and the financial backing remains unclear).
(Is the above plagiarised? Discuss in the light of the link from the heading.)
I have just watched this extraordinary film.

Its impact is largely based on the equally extraordinary variation between the practitioner's (Petit's) account, and that of spectators.

The spectator question is "Is he going to fall off?" (Spoiler; he didn't, otherwise he could not have contributed to this film.) For the participants or practitioners the question just does not arise. He spent 45 minutes on the wire and crossed and re-crossed eight times.

The point of this observation? It's a very vivid illustration of how the acquisition of a skill is capable of completely transforming a person. It would be nonsensical to listen to the Proms to see if you can catch out a player producing a note out of tune. Their performance concerns are utterly different, as a result of course of thousands of hours of practice. Richard Sennett, in his rambling and ultimately disappointing "The Craftsman" (2008), pronounces on what is becoming the received wisdom, that it takes 10,000 hours to produce a craftsman.

Random reflections;
  • At what cost? Ten thousand hours which could have been spent doing something other than practising an instrument, or training on a track or walking on a wire. What kind of person would the craftsman have become without that obsessionalism?

  • And related to that, it is not surprising that the craftsman does not just do something differently from everyone else; he or she now is different, and thinks of her- or himself differently.

  • If it takes that long, and always has done, why are we so obsessed with doing it faster? It's just pushing on an automatically closing door. It takes an enormous amount of wasted energy.

  • And as Sennett moots; can we afford it any longer? A few years ago there was a TV series called "Faking it", in which participants were given about three weeks to be transformed into passable imitators of a DJ, a hairdresser, a chef or such-like. Is that the paradigm for vocational education to come?

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