frugalis creativus

Interview with Mr. Schwarz, Co-Founder of Pencils for Africa

The following is a transcript of a conversation and interview between Pencils for Africa co-founders Allan Schwarz and Karim Ajania who were both born in Africa and first met as classmates at MIT

Allan: So, what does “educare” mean anyway?

Karim: Educare (ed-yoo-car-ay) from the Latin means “to educate, to train, to bring out and to draw out”.

A: Draw out like drawing out from a well?

K: Exactly. The original idea of “education” was to draw out what is already there in terms of nascent gifts and talent.

A: I much prefer that original approach to indoctrination.

K: Me too.

A: That’s like the 3 R’s.

K: Reading, Writing and Arithmetic?

A: Arithmetic does not begin with R!

K: I noticed.

A: Ja, the original term was “reckoning” - reading, writing and reckoning. Which also comes from the Latin “reckon” - to calculate. And if you think about it, when we were kids we used the pencil for reckoning as well as drawing. The pencil is an elegant and simple tool and it has no moving parts.

K: Nothing that can break down and need to be replaced?

A: Precisely. That is why it is so widely used. I saw a comment the other day about our whole Pencils for Africa concept - somebody described the deployment of all these used pencils as “weapons of mass empowerment” - I love that!

K: ‘Reminds me of Olivia’s term in describing a used pencil as in “perfect creative condition”.

A: Ja - I like that term by Olivia a lot actually - it puts a whole new perspective on a battered and bitten used pencil.

K: You know, I called up a school here in the U.S. a couple of weeks ago to ask them to donate their left over used pencils to us and they said to me: “It’s a good thing you called because it is the end of the school term and usually what happens is that the cleaning crew will come in once the students have left and throw out all the used pencils in the trash!”

Collecting up the wood for artisans at Mezimbite

A: Well, now you see that is just plain wasteful. You people can afford to behave like that in America.

But over here, we have to preserve our resources - especially in the middle of the forest at Mezimbite. Look - all my artisans need to use a pencil for their work, right? So what I do is bring in supply of pencils and I issue them each one pencil. Now I have roughly 60 artisans at any given time so that is about 60 new pencils. Each of my guys then etches his name on the pencil itself so there is no ambiguity as to whose pencil belongs to whom. They all meticulously sharpen these pencils during the life of the pencil. When the pencil becomes a tiny inch sized stub that cannot be held anymore to write with, they bring me the stub and I replace it with a new pencil. I mean, this may seem trivial but it is a metaphor for the way we are mindful of our resources and minimize all waste potential.

K: Frugalis utilis as Chris Chida recently wrote - frugality and utility.

A: Karim, you must try to come up with adjectives that are preferably not in Latin and make you sound like a schoolmaster from the 19th Century - and speaking of adjectives, I noticed in the Save the Awesome video that Adjective International have quite sumptuous headquarters from which they do their research! I actually consider this discussion around “adjective awesome” - as Patrick refers to it - as quite productive. It is actually a metaphor for education in many ways.

K: Yes, I was telling Patrick that when I was in primary school in London, the teachers had a system of issuing little sticky paper “stars” to compliment the schoolwork or artwork we did.

A: Ja, I had the same in elementary school - red stars, yellow stars…

K: Precisely! But the star that was the most elusive was the gold star. You had to do something truly exceptional in order to receive a gold star. A gold star was not issued indiscriminately. You had to work really, really hard for it. Therein lay it’s value. The overuse of the word “awesome” is like issuing gold stars indiscriminately.

A: Ja, I agree - and of course, in a conversational setting that is completely harmless. But in an educational setting when there is this so-called culture of “positive re-enforcement” where everything a student does is “awesome” then it really does blur the definition of what has productive value.

K: I was speaking to a linguistic expert on this matter just recently and she said to me that this psychobabble habit in some schools here in California, of always indiscriminately praising the work of a student with hyperbolic and gushy enthusiasm can in fact be detrimental to the learning process. Worse, it gives a false sense of entitlement that you have these super abilities and confidence that are built upon hot air rather than substantial grinding away at a skill or a craft.

A: Well, these artisans go through a rigorous and often brutal learning curve for a period of five solid years before they can be the master-craftsmen that can make the quality of wood products we make at Mezimbite. And if I kept praising them all the way and said their work was “awesome” for “feel good” reasons I would be doing them a great disservice because they would never have the opportunity to test themselves and discover the wellspring of talent that is latent within them. Their nascent abilities would never get to emerge - they would remain in the cocoon stage. And they would only have a superficial sense of their own ability and they would therefore create sub-standard workmanship.

K: So I gather you don’t use the adjective “awesome” a lot when training your artisans?

A: No, I do not use the adjective “awesome”. I do use some other adjectives however, some of which are quite crude and colorful. I do not suggest you print them. I believe in the hard grind of meaningful work which serves to elevate a person’s life economically and artisanally.

K: Henry David Thoreau said in Walden: ‘”I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.’

A: Thank goodness he didn’t say it in Latin!

K: Well, as you know Allan, my favorite Latin quote is from the Roman scholar Marcus Tillius Cicero: ‘Assiduus usus uni rei deditus et ingenium et artem saepe vincit‘.

A: Ja, I can translate that - Constant practice devoted to one subject will prevail over intelligence and skill‘.

K: Precisely - you see, I knew you had a classical education buried somewhere in there. Does the Latin word “educare” apply to your own school experience, Allan?

A: Yes, it definitely applies to my experience. I had teachers who applied the principle of “educare” - these schoolteachers drew out - my own natural passion for woodworking when I was a schoolboy. It is accurate to say that because of this educare principle that my own schoolteachers applied toward me, Mezimbite Forest Centre exists today, since it is entirely born out of my love of woodworking.

A remote and rural African school

An aspiration I hold for “Pencils for Africa”, is that we document how extraordinary schoolteachers in remote areas draw out (educare) the natural talents of their students.

There are remarkable acts of creativity and innovation occurring in schools in remote rural areas of Africa that are undocumented, unappreciated and undervalued.

I hope “Pencils for Africa” keeps an eye out for these ordinary rural school teachers doing extraordinary work.

- Allan

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