robinturner: First lesson: stick them with the pointy end (pointyend)
[personal profile] robinturner
[This is something I wrote for the MOOC "The History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education"]

Of all the skills which are hard to learn and harder to unlearn, household tasks have to come fairly high. For those of us who live on their own all their lives, or, as in a traditional marriage, take sole (or no) responsibility for housework, this is a minor problem; however, anyone who lives with someone who has strong opinions about the correct way to clean surfaces or prepare vegetables, for example, will either have to do some unlearning or face some serious arguments. I did a bit of both.

Fortunately, I had a little solo practice before plunging into married life, initiated by a reading of William Burroughs' quirky story “The Discipline of DE.” The DE stands for “Do Easy”, and it is the philosophy of the story's hero, a retired military man who relearns everything in his domestic routine, from cleaning to cooking to organising his wallet. The principle is simple: the best way to do something is the simplest way and the easiest way; if something seems difficult, you're doing it wrong. Our hero unlearns his previous sloppy domestic habits by breaking them down into their smallest components and practising them extremely slowly so as to eliminate even the slightest error or inefficiency, then putting them back together and speeding up until his displays of domestic skills seem almost magical. As I was at the time learning t'ai chi, which has very similar principles, this method appealed to me. I applied it first to vacuuming, and realised that I had been expending far more energy than I needed by using my arms rather than my hips and by pushing down into the floor. I also spent hours lobbing pieces of paper into the waste paper bin; this is the kind of thing you do when you are young and unemployed. After a while, though, my interest waned, and for the most part my home reverted to its bachelor-pad clutter.

The real test came with marriage to someone who not only had much higher domestic standards than me but also came from a different culture. This brings me to the second point about unlearning: we do things in a less efficient way not only by learning sloppy habits, but because we have been brought up to believe unthinkingly that the way we do them is right. Of course you wash up by filling up the bowl with hot water and dumping the plates in them. Washing them individually under the tap is just inefficient—unless you're Turkish, in which case it is the only way to get them clean. Of course the best way to dust is with a feather duster—unless you're Turkish, in which case it is a damp cloth. Since my wife takes cleaning far more seriously than I do, it ended up with me being the one to do the unlearning, and unlearning not just my own ways of doing things but my family's and sometimes even my culture's. Unlearning and relearning, then, is more than just hacking. With hacking, you know what you want to do and why you want to do it, so it's just a question of finding a more efficient way of doing it. But perhaps sometimes what we have to unlearn is our criteria for efficiency.


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Robin Turner

June 2014

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