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The Need for Tacit Learning

I have been farm sitting again, north west of London.  I was out there for a solid two weeks this time, after spending a week at my parents’ in Niagara.  And prior to that I was out at the farm again!  I’m home now and it feels almost foreign to be here.  Being surrounded by my household duties (cleaning + yard work) and longer term projects (cleaning out that basement, once and for all!) after nearly a month away is making me realize just how much stress that adds to my life.  The farm house I was staying in was large but sparsely furnished and that made it just so much easier to breath!  I worked all day in the dinning room (which I converted to my office) and then spent my evenings cooking or reading. No phone, no internet, no tv (except than the dvd player on my computer).  Other than getting a little lonely after a number of days in complete isolation, it was very restorative!  And I managed to get quite a bit of both academic work, and canning done as well.

When in Niagara I brought back nearly 30 quarts of peaches.  I got them as seconds for $15.  I couldn’t believe my luck!  They were delicious too.  I turned the best ones into canned peaches (9 one liter jars) and the rest into fruit preserve.  So I think I am pretty well set for peaches this winter.  I also made more pickles.  This time I tried bread pickles but the recipe I used called for too much salt and too many spices.  The result was very strong tasting pickles that I will eat, but won’t make again.  Next year I’ll try a different recipe.  I think the trick is to find pickles you like, then ask the person who made them for the recipe.  There are just so many recipes to choose from, and making pickles enough work (not to mention cucumbers) to want to be sure you are happy with the results.

The experience of making less-than-perfect pickles was, however, very timely in underscoring the research that I was doing into knowledge construction and transfer.  Very briefly – and at the risk of essentializing – knowledge can be broken down into two forms: tacit and explicit.  Explicit knowledge is knowledge which has been codified, that is, broken down and some how recorded such that it can be easily transfered from one person to another.  For example, a recipe would be considered explicit knowledge.

Tacit knowledge, in contrast, is that which comprises ‘more than we can say.’  That is, it is knowledge that is intuitively understood, and learned through experience.  Cooking with my grandmother would be an example of tacit knowledge.  Tacitly acquired knowledge is very rich and produces excellent results, but is time consuming and – by capitalist standards – inefficient.

Our (i.e. Western) culture, being driven by efficiency, increasingly pushes for, and values, explicit knowledge: computer code, genetic engineering and so on.  Tacit knowledge, which is highly localized and must be learned through person-to-person contact, as in a master-apprentice relationship, is increasingly being marginalized and demeaned.  After all, if you have a recipe book, who needs to learn to cook from grandma?

Those pickles made it clear that I, for one, still need grandma.

The division between tacit and explicit knowledge is also abundantly clear in agriculture.  Industrial farming is based on the latter: farmers are given a ‘recipe’ for growing: mix seed, add fertilizer and chemicals, and spread with large machines specifically designed to do so.  It requires very little person-to-person contact, and can be learned in a fairly short amount of time.  When things go wrong, a call to the local Monsanto rep hopefully fixes the problem. (Please note: I have very little experience directly observing factory farming and am essentially paraphrazing what I have read or heard from others – i.e. my knowledge of this topic is essentialy explicit!)

Organic farming, on the other hand, requires either considerable trial and error (which is what I have been doing in my little garden, with limited success) or lengthy apprenticeships.  Indeed, learning to farm organically can take years, even when working with someone really knowledgeable.  This is the way farming know-how was traditionally transfered, i.e. tacitly.  Children grew up helping on the farm and by the time they were young adults, they knew enough to run farms of their own.

Ironically, the modern education system is largely the reason this method of learning has been disrupted. For over a century, children have been taken off farms and put in school so that they would actually receive an ‘education.’  Instead of learning the ins and outs of the micro-climates on their family farm, they learned to read, to write and to do arithmatic.  Most of us have grown up believing that this is the way to a better life, and that our lives will be the richer for it.  But another perspective would suggest that what has happened is that we have given up one way of knowing, one knowledge-system, for another.  And the one we now embrace is the Western-capitalist system of knowledge with its sole purpose of commoditizing everything in order to continually expend the economy.  Indeed, why else do we need to learn how to read, write and do math if not to engage in the work force?  These are the tools we need to survive in this modern world.  Knowing where puddles form that could lead to crop rot is of little value to most of us now.

Or is it?  It is becoming increasingly accepted that factory farming is not only unsustainable, but it is highly damaging to the environment and to our health.  We need to grow our food ecologically, and to do so means trading in efficiency for tacit know-how.  At present, only 2% of Canada’s population is engaged in farming, and that is not nearly enough to feed our population.  As oil prices skyrocket and oil supplies dwindle, we will have no choice but to start growing food locally, and organically.  But to do so, we will need to know how.  My hit-and-miss garden experiments are fine and dandy when I can still go to market or the super-market to get food, but if those options become strained, I wouldn’t want to have to rely on myself for food at present.  I would likely starve long before I’d figure out how to do it myself.

We really need to pool the knowledge around ecological growing, and to disseminate it.  The most effective means of doing so, importantly, is through person-to-person teaching in a local context.  Learning how things grow in California, for example, will be of little help in to growing in London, Ontario.  And how things grow in my little backyard is different even from the conditions in my neighbour’s yard a few feet away.  Even with people teaching us carefully, we are all going to have to go through some trial and error to figure out what works on our specific land.  This takes time – a lot of it – and that may be something we are now also short of.   As the increasingly frequent oil price spikes should make clear, we need to do something about this, and do something soon.


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