Neovores and educators

There’s a difference between the kind of mental map you have of a new area of knowledge when you’re learning it quickly for your own use, and the kind of map that people make between them when trying to make new knowledge part of their shared practice. Neovores – people who consume novelty, who are early-adopters of the latest thing – throw together skeletal outlines of new knowledge that are just sufficient to orientate their pursuit of further newness. Their way of learning is optimised for moving quickly towards cool stuff that is just out of reach, new tricks which will afford them greater mastery. Consolidation and communication come later.

The great guitarist Shawn Lane referred to his own way of attacking seemingly-impossible high-speed licks as “transcendental technique”: you couldn’t reach it by learning the rudiments and then working up to the fancy stuff, you had to make a sort of leap into semi-competence at a new level and then consolidate from there. Lane wasn’t at all a sloppy player, but he was prepared to accept sloppiness and approximation on the path to technical mastery. His approach was in flagrant defiance of the classical teacher’s wisdom, which emphasises careful development and rigorous practice at each level of technique in order to avoid locking in bad habits. (For what it’s worth, I think you really do have to do it the classical teacher’s way if you want to play Bach; but maybe you have to do it Lane’s way if you want to play Lane).

Neovores can seem freakishly clever to more patient learners, partly because of their speed of advance and partly because when you ask them to explain what they’ve learned they often make it sound completely incomprehensible. But the reason why it sounds incomprehensible isn’t that it’s simply too difficult for ordinary mortals to understand; it’s that they’re trying to transmit verbally mental constructs that are almost completely devoid of the affordances that characterise social knowledge-artifacts. Social knowledge-artifacts are optimised for transmission and retention: they come adorned with metaphors and mnemonics, and have typically been “tried out” on many people. Having passed through multiple frames of reference, they may carry traces of many different standpoints and pragmatic/experiential settings. Such constructs aren’t terribly interesting to neovores, since they represent the already-tried, the crystallisation of experiment; but they’re often incredibly rich and many-faceted, and repay attention of a kind that the neovore’s brittle cognitive scaffolding is not built to withstand.

Educators are not only those who maintain and transmit the stock of social knowledge-artifacts, but equally importantly are those who socialise new knowledge, who find ways to get what the neovores have in their heads into the heads of everybody else. There’s a line in one of my Half Cocks poems about “Transcendental technique, now taught in magazines”, which refers to this process – an exemplary educator in the field of snazzy electric guitar-playing is the brilliant Guthrie Govan, whose encyclopaedic technical fluency comes from years of treating the work of Shawn Lane and countless others with patient respect and curiosity: learning how to do what they somehow figured out how to do, and teaching it to others. Educators proceed as if, in the words of the Codebar “effective teacher guide”, beginners – themselves included – have “no knowledge but infinite intelligence”. This doesn’t mean that we’re all unrealised super-geniuses, but that the barriers to understanding people first encounter on trying to learn something new are usually due to a lack of knowledge rather than a lack of cognitive capacity. The neovore often finds it frustrating that others don’t understand the things they do, but seem rather to lag behind gormlessly complaining that it’s all too unfamiliar and difficult. But it’s up to the educator to make something humanly and lastingly useful out of whatever’s at the end of that ladder into the clouds, and that requires a different sort of creativity and skill. The best learners are those who have learned to be both.

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