The Technique Taboo

For a strange few decades that may just be starting to end, if you went to art school you’d be ostracised by your teachers for trying to draw good representational art. “Representational art” means pictures that look like real things. Art school actively discouraged students from getting better at drawing.

“Getting better at drawing” is off-topic at my weekly local drawing club too. I’ve literally never heard it discussed.

This taboo extends far beyond art. My nearest gym forbids weightlifters from using electronic systems to log their progress. I’m friends with programmers who can’t touch type. None of them use Vim macros.

“I have sometimes suspected that the quickest way to get worried looks from many modern Western meditation teachers is to talk about practice in a way that implies the attempt to actually master anything.” — Daniel M. Ingram

In the part of the United States where I live, the subject of skill is often taboo. Not just relative differences in skill level between specific present individuals (which would make sense). The implicit acknowledgement of skill as a trainable attribute is taboo.

Not all professions have this issue. Math is still math. Biology is still biology. One can politely discuss a cook’s cooking. Magicians respect coin manipulation like it’s 1904.

But when traditional colleges supply the labor force for a professional trade outside of academia, that’s when discussion of skill (especially rote learning) becomes taboo[1]. College students learn everything about their trade except how to do it. Then we maintain a collective silence concerning technique.

  • A Chinese major teaches you how to talk about Chinese, not how to read it.

  • An English major teaches you how to talk about novels, not how to write one.

  • An art major teaches you how to talk about masterpieces, not how to create one.

  • A Computer Science Engineering major…well, you get the idea.

That’s a partial explanation, but it doesn’t explain why skill differences in weightlifting and meditation are also taboo.

Societies make taboo exactly those topics whose mere discussion threatens the precarious dominance of those at the top of the social order by drawing attention to the system’s internal contradictions.

I think my society is hiding something from itself.

  1. ↩︎

    Medical school is an exception to this pattern. This may be because medical school considers itself a form of technical training, to be undergone after acquiring a liberal undergraduate education.