Last time I quoted a university professor equating the teaching of “why” with education and the demonstrating of “how” with training. Some may find this an elitist position; I find it a reasonable synopsis of the way our system of education works. As a big supporter of the most traditional method — apprenticeship — I do not see it as an either/or situation.
When you are taught some tasks, such as building a chair, you start out by copying the work of the master. Once you can produce an item indistinguishable from your master’s, you might be allowed to introduce a few “improvements.” More likely, you have to keep following the old family recipe or move on to starting your own shop. We have all heard the story of the artist once fired by the painting factory for adding touches to the black velvet masterpieces.
From the master’s point of view, there is a right and a wrong way to do things and innovation must be done only by those who are extremely experienced in the field. The senior apprentice or journeyman disputes this because they too have built a few of these widgets, and there are obvious areas for change — either to improve performance, or reduce cost, or just to make it look different.
An “educator” eventually has to face the unending “why” questions a “trainer” can dismiss. The “higher” you go in education, the more the action shifts from the “how” to the “why.” A master’s degree or doctorate requires the recipient to produce an extensive explanation of a “why” in their thesis.
Many of the technical papers we publish in the magazine are the equivalent of a thesis. Some, and I would put the four I presented in this group, confine themselves to “how” something is done or simply summarize data on a topic. When a paper investigates the “why” of something, the audience has not yet mastered the “how”; it can cause the audience to lose interest.
A good example of this is found in higher mathematics, such as calculus. Ever wonder why the professor handed out those “cheat sheets?” You have no chance of reaching a class if their eyes glaze over.
How do we balance the “how” and the “why” in gearing?