Education Should Be Experiential, Not Merely Theoretical

From Education for Life

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You’ve heard that familiar, but time-dishonored, rationalization: "The end justifies the means." Everyone knows that this saying has been offered by "true believers" in multitudes of causes as justification for their violent deeds. A bad tree, however, as Jesus Christ pointed out, produces bad fruit. Evil means lead to evil ends.

And yet—suppose we restate that saying another way, thus: "The end tests the validity of the means"? To this statement, no one could object. For only by the actual outcome of a course of action can we verify whether the action was valid or not.

Human deeds justify, or condemn, themselves by their consequences. A man may campaign for peace, yet parade about so angrily in his "peace demonstrations" that all he accomplishes in the end is the disruption of everybody’s peace, including his own. A nation may see no harm in destroying its forests to get wood, but the consequences of the act will demonstrate that great harm was done to the ecology. In this case, the end—obtaining wood for fireplaces and for the construction of houses— clearly did not justify the means used. On the other side, if Fulton was ridiculed for building a ship made of metal, the fact that it floated once it was launched was all the justification he needed for his invention.

A course of action is justified if its results are consistently good. It is in the consequences of a theory, similarly, that the theory itself can be justified.

We see here a basic weakness of modern education: It is theoretical, primarily. It places all too little emphasis on practicality. Far from trying to justify any means in terms of their actual results, educators seem to view any concern with the practical effects of a theory as a kind of betrayal of the true, scholarly spirit.

I am reminded of the case of a man of only grade school education, but of wide experience in mining engineering, who, late in his life, decided to get a formal education. After great effort he succeeded in persuading the authorities of a university to accept him on the strength of his years of practical experience in the field. A few months later, however, he dropped his studies.

"What have you done?" demanded the dean. "It was so important to you to get an education, and we, too, went to great lengths to get you admitted."

"An education!" the man snorted. "There isn’t one of these pedagogues who isn’t teaching what I myself learned better in the field. Many of them learned everything they know from me! What can they teach me?"

It is no accident, surely, that many of the world’s greatest men and women—scientists, thinkers, teachers, molders of public opinion—either never finished their formal education or did poorly in school. Einstein’s teachers marked him for a failure in life. Edison could only manage three months of formal schooling, at the end of which his teacher sent him home with a note saying he was "unteachable"—in fact, "addled." Goethe found little worth assimilating during his formal schooling. In fact, he later claimed not to have found a single university course that could hold his interest.

What is the difference between great human beings and the pedagogues who explain their lives and discoveries to others? It is this, quite simply: True greatness focuses on reality, but the explainers get their knowledge and belief systems from books about reality. The way-showers of humanity have specific ends in mind—the truth about something, usually—and are committed to achieving those ends by the means most practical for attaining them. They are impatient with attitudes that seems to imply that the means are an end in themselves; that method is more important than results, and that no conclusion is ever final and should always, therefore, be considered tentative. For the pedagogue, on the other hand, theories hold such a fascination that the very intricacy of reasoning in their formulation often replaces the need for arriving at any firm conclusion.

However full a student’s head is crammed with book learning, his understanding of things, and of life in general, after twelve or sixteen years of education, is completely unrelated to actual experience. Still less is it the product of self-understanding.

Were we, on the other hand, to define education primarily in terms of what life has to teach us, we would soon find reality directing our theories, instead of theories molding our perceptions. But students are seduced into championing hare-brained, and even dangerous, beliefs, all because their teachers are too "objective" to mind if a theory offends against normal human sensibilities and the most rudimentary common sense, as long as it is presented in an attractive wrapping of intellectual reasoning.

Take the teachings of Jean Paul Sartre on the subject of meaninglessness. Sartre was a nihilist. Because he developed his theories brilliantly, they are offered at universities as standard intellectual fare. "The ego is flattered," Paramhansa Yogananda wrote, "that it can grasp such complexity."

A recent survey of professors found that the majority preferred wordy, intellectually intricate and abstruse articles on subjects in their own fields over articles that made the same points, but in a style that was simple and easy to read.

The people conducting the survey then took articles that had been written simply and clearly, and restated them in convoluted terms, replacing short words with long ones wherever possible, and clear statements with others that were muddy or contrived. They offered these altered articles to the same professors, along with the original versions, and asked for a comparative evaluation. Most of those learned pedagogues, never guessing that they were in essence reading the same article to which not a thought had been added, and from which none had been deleted, declared they preferred the more complex version. When asked why, they replied that the more intellectual-sounding version showed better research, deeper thought, and greater insight.

It can be astonishing, the extent to which theories learned during the formative years can direct a person’s later perceptions of reality. Any error he learned early distorts the very way he reasons. False premises lead to false conclusions no matter how clever the line of reasoning. Theories imposed on reality are allowed to pose as substitutes for the reality itself.

We see this tendency in psychologists who insist, in defiance of their own direct experience, that the mind of a newborn baby is a blank slate on which environment will write the impressions that will form his personality. Nothing in objective reality supports this theory. Parents know how very different, from birth, each child is from all the others. Never mind. Theory says it should be so: Therefore, it is so.

We see the same tendency in Freud, who adopted virtually as his mission the attempt to explain all human motivation in terms of the sex drive. (I can imagine physicists trying to fit Freud’s theory to their attempts to discover the laws inherent in quantum mechanics!)

Educated people, far more so than those who have been raised in the "school of hard knocks"—that is to say, of common sense—are notoriously prone to prefer theory over reality.

For education to prepare children for meeting life realistically, it should encourage them to learn from life itself, and to view with skepticism a body of fixed knowledge that has been passed on unquestioned from one generation to the next.

Education must above all be experiential, and not merely theoretical. The student should be taught, among other things, to observe the outcome of any course of action, and not to depend blindly on the claims of others as to what that outcome is supposed to be, and therefore will be.

In this simple emphasis on direct experience, not only as regards the investigations of science, but even more so as it applies to the Humanities, lie the seeds of a new and revolutionary system of education that I have named here, Education for Life.

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