How Best to Learn?

Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

Some people know by book-learning; others by experience. Can we compare them? Is one way better than the other? As a matter of fact, most of us know both ways, but, admittedly, some of us tend toward one more than the other.

There are those who first read the recipe book, and then prepare the meal. There are others who go straight into cooking the meal, experimenting as they go along. Which way makes the most impression on us, that is, a lasting impression? Do we better learn by “book learning”, as some describe it, or by just “doing it”?

We occasionally run into geniuses like Steve Jobs, who dropped out of college at an early stage, and strike out on their own, just as he did, and proceeded to score great success in the computer/electronic industry. There are others who are information collectors, like boys with baseball cards, hundreds of them, covering decades of great players on every team, and they can rattle off more information about a player than the rest of us.

To change an automobile tire, we can read all about it in a car’s manual stashed away in the glove compartment. Or we can go into our garage and do it ourselves, probably badly the first time or two, but gradually grow adept at it. Of course, the same would likely be true of learning about it by reading the manual.

Or we can read about the danger of boiling water, how badly it can burn us if it spills on our hand. And this can lead us to be careful. But we can also experience a burn first-hand, accidentally spilling the water while standing at the oven. Which is the better way of learning?

Experience can be likened to an art, like that of making friends. There was a well known book of several decades ago entitled: HOW TO WIN FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE, by Dale Carnegie .   It was a reading approach to doing this. But, of course, there is also an experiential approach to the same task, that is, by just diving into a crowd of people at a party, introducing oneself and start talking.

A standard example of the difference in learning by book and learning by experience is swimming or riding a bicycle. Again, the experience of being thrown in the water or placed atop a bicycle seat and shoved off along the sidewalk differs considerably from learning about these ventures through instruction.

Then there is prayer. There are many books to read on how to pray. Scores of books have been written about HOW TO TALK TO GOD, OR CONVERSE AND COMMUNE WITH GOD. But there’s also the experiential approach of darting into the rear of a church and planting oneself in the presence of God. We recall the gospel story of the tax collector standing at a distance in the temple and asking God to have mercy on him, a sinner (Lk 18.9-14). We suspect this was an experience-based prayer.

Book learning takes place in the head. Experiential learning involves the whole body, almost like a chill running throughout one’s body. Forgetting is more likely to occur in the head than it is at the level of experience. Learning by experience to ride a bicycle, at a young age, surprisingly remains with a person for a long time, so that, even after thirty years of not riding a bike, one can do so again, without more ado.

We can read about the Jewish holocaust, and the skeleton-like humans found in the concentration camps at the end of WWII, and this makes a lasting impression. But the military, who first came on this scene at war’s end, experienced in a totally different way what the holocaust was like, knowing it by presence to it.

That is why so many veterans of war and military ventures are loathe to talk about it upon returning home. The experience of war has embedded itself into the sinews of their bodies in such a way that it’s basically non-communicable to those lacking that experience. Reading war episodes is fascinating, but cannot match personal presence to it.

Mothers relate to their children, especially infants, in this experiential way. They know, without being told by the baby, what is going on within the tiny confines of that body; they need not read Dr. Spock. Or similarly, there is the quality of compassion some people enjoy, whereby they can enter into the sufferings of another person and experience it as their own. They are not told of the suffering by the sufferer, but they know in a “feeling” fashion what another is going through. They experience it.

So we ask: how best do we learn: by head, or by experience?

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Author: CPP

We are a community of laymen and laywomen who, with vowed Passionists, seek to share in the charism of St. Paul of the Cross through prayer, ongoing spiritual formation, and proclamation of the message of Christ Crucified.

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