If there’s one thing that confuses me it’s how standardised the world has become. If this blog has any personal value it’s myself trying vainly to produce something that makes me distinctive. Graduates have to produce a thesis- a piece of work that is entirely theirs. It’s a right of passage, you’ve gone from being a consumer to producer. It’s seems like an apt finishing note that education has changed how you approach learning.
How we learn is probably the most important facet of being human. Learning made us the most powerful species on the planet because we do it best. Bizarrely in a world of increasing non-linearity how we learn has remained remarkably uniform. Sure we have the internet now, libraries are everywhere but everyone will read books, do exams and pass or fail.
Learning for me comes in two forms- understanding and experiencing. Universities do well on the understanding ‘didactic’ style learning but really fail on the experiential side, which really undermines the idea of being ‘learned’. Instructional or observational learning is only part of the story and for this humanities tend to have the greatest missed opportunities in experiential learning. John Dewey an American philospher and education reformer suggested the uniformity in education weeded out the originality and the individual nature of intellectual development it was suppose to create.
“Imposing an alleged uniform general method upon everybody breeds mediocrity in all but the very exceptional. "
Say for instance, you observe a relationship between two people through a one-way looking glass. You might understand how a relationship operates; you may even begin to work out behaviours that foster good or bad relationships. You will never understand the emotional value of pursuing that relationship precisely because it’s not something you learn as an observer it’s something you feel as a participant. Experiencing is a fascinating aspect of knowledge because it is teaching you the unteachable, it filters through a personal and unique biological and psychological system to create an indefinable essence of knowing not just how but why, when and if through the prism of individual expectation and involvement.
This car crash realisation happened to me just over a year ago. I had just started work in a laboratory on my graduate thesis. I had known what science had involved before then but one thing that had never occurred to me is how lonely that job makes you. I had lots friends, a girlfriend, an active hobby in debating but from 9-5 I was occupying an otherwise empty space. Maths, measuring and materials became my only friends for the majority of my time. The sterility of my environment had become a metaphor for my working life.
By the end of the three months I had nearly lost my mind. I had every expectation of what science would involve but not how it would affect me.
Now I realise that science is not one of the careers that hardly markets itself for the socially marvellous, but one thing I learned is that I’m not mentally wired for a job that requires a lot of isolation. This was a psychological filibuster that effectively ended my career in science before it even begun. The kick in the teeth was that it took my entire university career before I could experience this.
Now I look at my CV and see that my degree takes up less space than my address and that alone suggests to me that education in this country isn’t working. Most of the people who talk of the formative experiences of education simply don’t talk about essays, tutorials or deadlines. They talk about time they wrote for the newspaper, went travelling with the debater or ran for student president. They were experiences that I created, chose and most importantly participated in.
It's easy to sideline experential learning when the environment becomes all about grades. Those who decide to do little but study at university probably degrade their employability and intellectual development for two core reasons- they become risk averse and lack initiative. Risk adverse behaviour is exactly what you would expect in an environment where you are forced into an observational role in education. The observer is set apart from those that create knowledge.
I've known many English literature graduates during my student travels all of which that can recite some of the most beautiful poetry I have ever known. Few, if in fact any, have even attempted to write poetry of their own. Whilst continually forced to be an observer and asked to critique the work of others over time it pushes them further and further away from participating in the very work they are celebrating. A builder can only be called a builder if he builds things. The first attempt might be somewhat crude but at least he can call himself a builder. At university everybody becomes what any builder hates. They become critics.
Being in an environment full of critics can kill the artist within many people. This is because critics, especially inexperienced ones, will almost always judge their peers (or in many cases their competition) very harshly. The first mistake the inexperienced critic makes is judging people by impossibly high standards, the second is attempting to make themselves feel good about doing so. The third mistake is assuming that people want to here about their tastes rather than their opinions. The final and most maddening of all is oft-committed crime of attempting to prove how knowledgeable they are instead of helping the reader or the artist appreciate or develop the piece. Thus we must kill the critic without trial. Creative genocide is the ugliest crime of them all.
Luckily for the critic there is a cure for this sickness- attempting to fail. The experience of attempting to produce any work of merit weather it be a poem, a book or an article teaches us something that didactic learning never could- that originality is hard, motivation is inconsistent and that writing about yourself makes you vulnerable and scared. Most critics never come from this point of view precisely because they are armchair generals in this regard. Viewing the tactical moves without the human reality of the experiences involved, and therefore ill-informed to make judgements on that which they do not know.
It seems that, at least formally, we are only taught one type of learning our entire lives. I think experiential learning needs to become a bigger facet of all our lives, precisely because requires us to be participant in what we love observing and that transition teaches us things we could never otherwise know about our discipline and our very personal relationship with it.
I say get out of the armchair and head for the front line and start experiencing what you learn, appreciate and love. Don’t be educated to be a critic, be educated about yourself. Maybe then you’ll paint the world. Maybe then I won’t kill you.