Experience and Education
November 06, 2009
For various reasons, I have again found myself thinking about the interesting dynamic that exists between experience and education as two separate, and quite distinct, domains. As a measure of the difference between the two, experience by its very nature is highly situational and particular, while education, at least in principle, reaches towards the more universal and the more general. Experience, accumulated over time, ultimately provides much of the material that education seeks to convey in a condensed, accessible and reusable form. Education, in turn, informs experience by setting it into a broader context and supplying tools that ideally make experience both more effective and more informative. It turns out that one without the other is substantially diminished and this brings us to consider how these two different domains can be mixed and matched in productive ways.
The Boxer of Quirinal: The Sad Face of Experience
Depending where people find themselves in life they will likely feel that they have more of one than the other when it comes to experience and education. With many people that I know, any sense that one side is gaining too great a prominence will lead to steps being taken to bolster the other side. This is a very positive approach, to my mind. If education alone gains too much sway over someone’s view of the world then impracticality and impatience seem to flourish as nothing in the real world seems to measure up to the sublime standards set by theoretical ideals. On the other side, experience alone can turn out to be a far less effective teacher than many people, and proverbs, suggest and I have been heard to declare that, unassisted, experience is as likely to set error in stone as it is to illuminate. There is also a difference in how the two domains feel, as it were. Education often propels people forward with renewed enthusiasm that then looks for a way to make a practical difference. In contrast, experience can often feel like an accumulating weight that calls for re-organization and distillation to make it both less burdensome and more useful. It turns out that not only are experience and education related, but they actually need each other – in order for either to be sustainable and productive.
One of the circumstances that is sure to bring this dynamic into focus is an encounter with an educational program that seeks to inculcate practical skills in addition to any other outcomes. These are frequently found amongst the offerings of the typical university professional school. In these programs, a variety of strategies are deployed to allow students to practice skills within scenarios that simulate the “real world”. If you happen to be a participant from that “real world”, these exercises come across as amusing in the same way that watching schoolyard games is amusing.
The Labyrinthine World of Higher Education
As a brief recollection, I participated in an executive leadership program at a university a few years ago and it turned out that this particular program was primarily focused on participants from the public sector. As all such programs do, this gathering featured a major team project that would lead to presentations on the recommendations that the teams had assembled to address some real-world problem. I remember wandering into the campus pub one evening to find a number of the groups huddled around their respective tables. The most eloquent of the participants could not help but tease the one person from “industry” (being me) with a leading question – “Are you ready for the big competition on Friday?” At this, several tables of people all indulged in a hearty laugh. Of course, I laughed along with the group and started my reply with “No, no, it’s not a competition,” and then I continued, letting the smile slowly fade from my face, “if it was a competition, it would already be over.” This seemed to freeze their smiles so that they quickly became expressions of nervous unease. They were each pondering the ways in which this was probably true. This real world outside the safe walls of the public service and the university was to them a large, unknown and even frightening place where they would not likely survive very long.
None of this is intended to imply that educational pursuits do not provide important opportunities to refine skills that will be directly useful in the real world of experience. On the contrary, there are core skills in learning and communication that are only exercised by the practice of education and that will never be developed by experience alone.
My point really is that the good that can come from education, for those in or entering the real world of experience, stems from the fulsome pursuit of challenging academic activities and not from participating in mock business experiences such as are provided by simulations or make-believe projects. Not surprisingly, I am not the biggest fan of the “case study method” although I will myself use them – although in moderation and only in conjunction with other strategies. Where education seeks to be more practical, or more applied, this presents the opportunity for these programs to engage genuine experience, as in experience that has been accumulated by real practitioners and then tempered and tailored for educational use, in ways that are both real and productive.
In defence of the educational pursuit against those who only believe that experience and practical training are necessary to prepare people for the real world, I would contend that the individual who has wrestled with Hegel will find the outpourings of even the most obtuse lawyer to be a walk-in-the-park. Similarly, someone who has worked through the inner mysteries of quantum mechanics will find the design of a computer program to be worthwhile but hardly overwhelming workout. A business student who has genuinely tried to understand the strengths and weaknesses of Marx, or Weber, or Taylor, or Keynes, when compared to historical reality will be far better equipped to make sense of a marketplace in turmoil and, more importantly to take effective action, than someone who has only been exposed to simplified case studies together with their stock answers and formulaic poses. In this regard, the truly academic pursuit can be profoundly practical and far more so than the more superficial alternatives.
Turning the equation around, those people who have seen much of the world, and how it works, will only be able to capitalize upon that experience if they avail themselves of the chance to stop, think and compare some of what they have encountered with the experiences of others and with the ideas that have emerged and evolved over the years. I myself have described it as benchmarking the lessons of my own experience against those of other practitioners and more importantly against those embodied in the disciplines that have grown up around the relevant domains of practice. And if someone comes to feel that their experiences may be useful to others, say to a younger generation, then there are different, indeed educational, activities that must be applied to those experiences in order to make them something that can be passed on and something worth passing on.
Ultimately, the question really becomes what is the best way for the merits of experience and education to be combined. A good answer to this question, if put into educational practice, would yield substantial benefits for both the real-world domain of experience and the academic realm of education. Perhaps the more germane question is whether or not our institutions of higher education are making any progress along these lines, or whether or not they are even trying.
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