Nicholas Gessler (gessler@UCLA.EDU)
Fri, 16 Aug 1996 11:10:56 -0700

Jesse Cook has challenged John Cole's assertions that stone toolmaking can
be taught quickly and without language. I'd like to back up John's
observations with some of my own. Citing experience:

While in Solvieux, France in the late '60s I and a few others found that
within a few hours we could make a number of Magdelenian stone tools fairly
well. When we had an abundant supply of flint we found it easy to learn
quickly from our own trial and error. Subsequently, I've worked in quartzite
and obsidian and found that it's not hard to become a Flintknapper Step I.
Here we were self-taught by copying an extant tool.

I don't pretend to be anywhere near Crabtree or Bonnichson in flintknapping
expertise, but I should point out that they too were largely self-taught, or
learned from copying extant tools. Again language was not involved between
the original maker (long dead) and the student.

Language probably would have improved our efficiency. Language is probably
useful, possibly necessary, but never sufficient for teaching in "the
trades." Apprenticeships serve to provide time for learning by example. A
great deal of language is used to focus attention on the process, such as
"watch closely." Army manuals are notorious for taking the opposite
linguistic approach. "Just show me how to do it." Other offenders are the
makers of fireworks with the understated instructions "do not hold in hand
after lighting" and "light fuse, place on ground, get away quickly!" There
are certainly two approaches to teaching the trades, usually falling under
the rubric of "theory and practice." It would be interesting to see some
studies of the relative effectiveness of each of the two for given tasks. I
would expect that people differ widely in which approach works best and it
might be worthwhile to compare the merits of each in an effort to impart
some adaptive significance to the two modes of learning. Does anyone have
any pointers?

Nick Gessler