Leaning From Experience

Yes, we all know about the value of learning from experience and there is no one over 50 who does not believe he has been relatively successful in having learned a lot of useful stuff during his lifetime.  Life can provide a lot of opportunities to learn a lot.  And I would agree - most of us DO learn - and some - but not most - keep learning new things for much of our lives.  The trouble (you knew I’d get to that, didn’t you) is with WHAT we learn.

There are two entirely separate phenomena that complicate what we learn from experience.  First, there is the fact that two people involved in the same event often experience it as two entirely different occurrences based mostly on which part of that experience each considers the most important aspect of it and the second is that, even if they experience it in the same way, they may learn entirely different “lessons” from it.  So the very same experience can teach those who experience it a lot of different and sometimes conflicting things. These dramatic differences are easily shown:  It is not hard to see that many of the people who lived through the civil rights movement of the ‘60s - those who were really “there” watching and experiencing and even participating in what was going on - came away from that experience having learned diametrically opposing “lessons.”  E.g., if you were a middle class white resident of a medium-size city in Alabama with a high-school education, you probably learned that the young “Negras” of the day were pushy, demanding, didn’t know there place and often dangerous.  If you were a young black resident of one of those same cities whose parents had always worked hard at menial jobs and you had been denied the same high-school education the white kids got, then what the civil rights movement taught you was that it was necessary to stand up for your own rights - and by doing that you got a lot of respect and surprising support even from many whites - in addition to the expected ire of most local whites.  So, what first-hand participation in that very same period of history taught these two people (it should not surprise us) was heavily influenced by their two very different “world views” as a result of having had entirely different conditioning.

So what this means is that, in spite of all the hype about the value of learning from one’s experiences, what you will learn from your experience is always enormously subjective; being as much a result of “who you are” as of what physically happened.  And so, while experience is certainly useful, one must be very careful when interpreting what it all “means.”  Possibly the most dangerous aspect of this is that if one uses ONLY one’s past experience to forecast the future, that would produce the exact opposite effect from what is intended by the old saying that “failing to learn from the past dooms you to repeat it.”  In my above example, our subject  “locked in” the future by expecting it to be no different from his past experience - the exact opposite effect of what we’ve all been led to expect.  So there is a lot more to it than just “learning from history;” you need to also determine what, if anything, went wrong in history and then also learn how to keep it from going wrong  again.  Simply learning what happened in history is only the beginning of any problem-avoiding effort.  But it gets worse:

Eventually, as our “world view” hardens with age, our ability to learn ANYTHING new from experience grinds nearly to a halt.  We believe we are observers of the March of Time and we see clearly what is happening around us, but we absolutely do not.  We see entirely what we expect to see and nothing more.  No matter what happens, we manage to understand it so it fits somewhere within our established expectations.  You see this all the time; just think about how differently some of your friends have “understood” what has been happening in the US government.  In politics and religion we stop even reading anything or listening to anything that we expect will not support our established views.  Actually, we do that with nearly everything, not just with things that are ideologically important to us.  For example, if we work in the world of education, we are not interested in hearing more than a few superficial facts about any new theory of teaching that some new hot-shot believes may be a breakthrough - particularly if it means we may have to change our own mind or way of doing things.  If we are scientists, someone who comes to our annual conference with a promising but radical new theory can often not even get an audience.  We are simply not interested in someone who we see as invading our “area of expertise” in which we have spent most of our lives and at which we’ve been nominally successful.  We are just not much interested in “wasting our time” listening to someone explain why we may have been wrong.  And so, every single bit of experience (that we notice or acknowledge and allow access to our conscious consideration) seldom does anything but, remarkably, reinforce our established opinions.  Not only that but . . .

We think we’ve had experiences we haven’t had.  Virtually anything important that has happened during our lifetime we evaluate as if we’ve “experienced” it as eyewitnesses.  Reading about something daily in newspapers or on our favorite blogs - even clips of it on TV - makes us think we are nearly experts about what happened.  Do you think you know what fighting the war in Afghanistan is like?  Something may have happened there and reported about just yesterday, but all we really know about it is what someone else chooses to report - and the reporter probably didn’t witness it either.  Probably worst of all is we often accept as true what a commentator says when he is speculating about something he thinks someone else said or did.  Do you think any of that qualifies as having provided us with valuable experience? 

Fox News has its own sneaky way of creating “news:”  A commentator or panel member in an open discussion will speculate about what someone in government MIGHT have done or said to cause something to happen.  These often start with the commentator saying something like, “It wouldn’t surprise me if the President had called Henrry and told him to . . . . “   and in the next newscast, the same item will be introduced with, “it has been reported that the President called . . . “  and the same speculation will be repeated, but without any indication that the “report” was just a speculation.  So, someone hearing only the second report - or who did not pay close attention to the first one - will come away with the impression that what is reported is factual information, not just someone’s speculation.  And this is how outrageous “facts” get planted by dogma-driven organizations such as Fox News.

But returning to genuine “learning from experience” and the difficulties of having too much conflicting experience from which to choose, I could speculate that, in early 2003, the Secretary of Defense should have used more of what the US had learned from our experiences with Vietnam and less of what we had learned from our experiences in World War II when he was advising a President who wanted to go to war with another country whose leader he did not approve of.  Whether anything like this actually happened I have no idea, my point in ONLY that we can always find SOME experience in history to support just about any action a government wants to take.  There is now just too much collective governmental “experience” out there to “learn from.”  So, it isn’t really failing to learn from experience, Sir Winston, that dooms us to repeat it; it is rather that our brains permit us to believe we’ve learned whatever lesson we need to have learned to justify doing whatever we want to do.  It is the identifying and remembering what we did wrong in the past that is the essential, critical piece of information we must learn from.

However the kids in the ‘60s had it right:  Never trust anyone over 30.  Better yet, never let anyone over 30 get absolute control of anything or give “authoritative” advice to anyone - particularly in our government.  The young folks will make mistakes, of course, but the bright ones won’t make as many as the self-satisfied, mature egoists who claim judgement based on experiences they did not have and/or on real experiences they systematically misunderstood or misinterpreted.  Young people, at least, can make decisions without the influence of a lot of that lethal baggage.   And it is, I insist, more than just conceivable that it is those great mounds of untrue “truths” that we older folks have erroneously learned (partly from “experience” we only inferred) that is behind our most sincere - and often most colossal - mistakes. 

Maybe we should turn the world over to bright young people.  A bright kid can still understand there are things he doesn’t know, but an experienced advisor will seldom believe there is anything important he hasn’t already learned.  Isn’t it much better to make decisions cautiously, knowing the fragility of your information, than to decide boldly using rock solid information that is dangerously wrong?  Or maybe we should start teaching ourselves more of the truths and limitations about ourselves and what it really means to be human.  “Oh, no!” I can hear some of you shout, “That would kill our “free spirit” and we’d no longer feel free to go our own way and “do our own thing!”  Exactly; isn’t that what being a “grown up”   is?

© Gerald L. Andrews

June 25, 2010

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