People say experience is the best teacher, and they also say that experience is the teacher of fools.  These seem contradictory, but I don’t think they are.

Experience can often teach in a richness of detail other sources can’t match.  Experience can present best evidence, and shatter what we think we know.  First-hand experience is primary and direct, and learning doesn’t have to be funneled through the perspectives and distortions of other people.  Experiences are often rare.  If we love Abraham Lincoln, we could read 100 books about him.  But, if we got the chance to see or work with him in the 1860s, that could be more valuable than a lot of books.

At the same time, if somebody can only learn by experience, that’s extremely inefficient and it limits how much they can learn.  It means they have to learn things the hard way, and there will be some things they can never learn, because they can only experience what’s available at the time. Also, many things are dangerous, harmful or fatal to learn.

I found an interesting example of this in a New York Times opinion piece.  There is something nasty and condescending to take such a trip to learn about poverty.  There is something pathetic about not being able to understand what it is with local books, local conversation and maybe some community service.  Yet, some people treat the first-hand sight as a zen-like thing.  In our society, people who don’t want to experience something so intense are considered hubristically unemotional, and I think this article reflects how pathetic that is.

It pays to learn as much as possible by other ways: books, conversations, abstract-thinking, etc.  Experience is a good supplement, and it’s good to be balanced.  But, we should keep the role of experience in perspective, because experience is, for a lack of a better word, expensive.  I don’t mean in terms of money, necessarily.  I mean in terms of everything.

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