The Persistence of Material

The persistence of material

Originally uploaded by anselm23

My friend Josh (@Paperbits on Twitter) works at several places, including this shop where one will find this red granite workbench — calibrated to remain perfectly steady and stable and level in nearly all circumstances. It’s part of the elaborate set-up necessary to grind metal parts to an accuracy of more than 1/10,000th of an inch.

Red granite, of course, is an ancient pyramid-building material. The ancient Egyptians knew how to smooth stone down to this same level of fineness — although the accuracy of their metal parts was nowhere near what Josh’s employer does, of course.

I think we sometimes forget in schools that not everyone is going to go on to careers as English literature professors or historians, or as clerks or investment bankers. Because of that, maybe it’s necessary from time to time to step back and ask, “why am I teaching this?”

When I taught ancient history as art history, I’d show kids a slide of the sarcophagus of Khufu in the Great Pyramid at Giza, and they’d write on their quiz, “circa 2300 BC, Egyptian sarcophagus, Khufu’s pyramid, red granite” and maybe a sentence about who Khufu was. I made them include the material — faience or lacquer or granite or gold or silver-gilt — as a way of getting them familiar with the terminology of art history.

But maybe I was going about it all wrong. Maybe what I SHOULD have been doing was asking them the material, and asking them how that material or technology could be applied today. Then, when an employer said, “how are we going to get parts of that accuracy?” the kid – now an adult – would know to say, “Oh! We need a calibrated red granite bench and a temperature-controlled assembly room.”

Even better would be if they knew to say, “Of course, we could job it out to a company that knows what they’re doing, or build it in-house for a half-million bucks, and make some very expensive mistakes.”

Those kinds of thought processes are hard to in-grain in anyone, but easier to in-grain in kids than anyone else. This photo reminds me that we should be doing a better job of teaching the Industrial Revolution, and how all the technologies of the past suddenly combined into something new.

A dead pharaoh’s sarcophagus isn’t just a historical artifact — it was the training ground for the species we’re becoming.

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