Post No.: 0046
Age doesn’t automatically lead to experience, and experience doesn’t automatically lead to education or knowledge – the passage of time, and often even exposure, isn’t alone enough for us to learn things. Education is indeed richer when accompanied with a firsthand experience but not all firsthand experience leads to education (experience doesn’t necessarily equate to correct knowledge or useful information); and although the opportunities for firsthand experiences usually increases with age, not everybody has or takes their opportunities.
For instance, most people have very likely seen the planets Venus, Mars, Jupiter and/or Saturn with their own naked eyes on clear nights before but did not recognise them – we can be directly looking at or experiencing something but not questioning or understanding what we’re seeing, and instead we could be assuming falsehoods (e.g. that it was just another star), and therefore we can miss the truth even though we were there and staring right at it.
Or just because one has seen and has experienced white daylight every single day in one’s life (and has even seen rainbows now and again), it doesn’t mean one will have automatically understood and worked out, from only personal experiences and no science lessons, that it’s actually made up of a range of different colours – no one knew until Isaac Newton worked it out and taught his peers and following generations of people; for which we, without even needing to get a prism out ourselves, understand and accept this fact of light and take it for granted now.
Many people who have lived long lives wouldn’t have known via their own life experiences what Charles Darwin figured out, without having directly learnt from other people about the theory of evolution – despite having personally seen with their own eyes the similarities that e.g. chimpanzees share with humans, or dogs share with wolves, yet not making the conceptual leap to suggesting they’re related in some fundamental way, based on their own firsthand sensory experiences.
So it can be arrogant to think that mere age or exposure to a problem or phenomenon is better than a formal education on a particular subject. Until we are explicitly taught some facts or theories, we might never discover them ourselves even if we’re staring right at something. Experiencing and seeing are not the same things as recognising and understanding. You could e.g. remain believing that the Earth is flat if you relied solely on your own firsthand sensory information and experiences. People on holiday abroad often experience firsthand many culture shocks or quirks – they’re present in person experiencing the shock relative to what they’re used to but they won’t always understand the underlying reasons for those differences unless they directly study the culture and history of that country. And for not studying, they may also come to their own erroneous assumptions, conclusions and stereotypes. Our own personal experiences are naturally very limited compared to the total sum of all experiences by everybody in the entire world from recorded history to today so far, and this limited personal experience of ours can bias us into believing in crude generalisations and other primitive judgements.
When we learn from just our own firsthand experiences, we tend to be good at learning what achieves short-term or temporary results but what might not be good for the long-term (e.g. smacking as a form of discipline or conversely using treats as bribes to stop (i.e. reward) bad behaviours).
Regarding intellectual pursuits at least – education is the shortcut to experience. One shouldn’t need to partake in a war firsthand to learn how bad conflict is – one can learn from others or from history. Some things of course cannot be really learnt without firsthand experience, such as things that involve physical pursuits, sensory recognition such as feel, body-eye coordination or basically anything that needs practising. Yet even with these kinds of skills, some lessons from others who’ve ‘already been there and done that’ can advance our game dramatically. Personal experiential, blindly-hopeful trial-and-error can eventually get us to where we want to be but it can be slow and inefficient, whilst imitation and learning from those who’ve been there and done it before is relatively rapid. In a stroke, a tip, a key piece of knowledge or advice can lead to a massive jump in efficiency that mere unguided practice cannot. Woof!
A bad repeated experience can just ingrain bad habits too (e.g. a bad swing technique in golf). Practice doesn’t necessarily lead to perfection – it leads to permanent, including permanent or tough-to-shake-off bad habits or sub-optimal techniques. So it’s advantageous to learn the best existing techniques first, whilst keeping an open mind and eye out for possibly even better techniques discovered in the future. Practice and theory are both important – without theory (like a ship without a rudder and compass), one will be heading where one doesn’t know. Guided practice and educated experiences are the most effective forms of practice and experience.
Even when we want to create or discover new things no one in history has yet created or discovered before, and therefore no one can exactly teach us it – knowing what has existed and been known before allows us to recognise what is truly novel and what isn’t. One can improve on someone else’s techniques, but one will benefit from knowing someone else’s techniques first before one can determine whether it’s an improvement or not. So without education, at least as guidance, we might not know what to look out for or what we’re even looking at even if it’s right in front of our fuzzy eyes – we might not even recognise if something is inventive when it actually is.
Education typically beats mere experience in many domains – well we’d all be living, talking etc. like feral, primitive animals if it weren’t for knowledge being culturally passed on and learnt generation-by-generation. Without being able to learn from, and without learning from, others, we’d all essentially have to start afresh with our own discovery of all knowledge because relying on genetic instincts and genetic evolution alone is inadequate. Humans have not genetically evolved that much in many thousands of years – but the vast differences we see in modern civilisations compared to those a few thousand years ago are due to the pool of taught and learnt knowledge growing and growing, at an exponential rate that matches the exponential rate of civilisational advancement over this same time period. The human species, above all other species on this planet, dominates (in terms of technological advancements at least) because of learning from others and teaching to others. We can learn far more socially than individually!
So learning from others is why human culture is so advanced – humans learn from the collective lifetime experiences of others before them so that each generation doesn’t have to start from scratch and learn from just their own personal experiences each time (each generation or individual person doesn’t need to independently discover e.g. calculus, how to cultivate crops, how to make clothing, etc. according to their own firsthand trial-and-error experiences). Learning from others means generations upon generations can build and build upon the human pool of knowledge (because e.g. calculus doesn’t become genetically passed on from one generation to the next once the first person has discovered it).
People can have a naïve conception of inheritance when they think e.g. ‘both my parents are great bakers so I should be naturally great at baking too’ – well not unless you personally learn to bake because you can’t just rely on your inherited genes(!) There may possibly be transgenerational epigenetic factors (the inheritance of the on/off activation of genes that occurred to the genes of one’s parents (or grandparents and possibly so on) because of what happened to them environmentally) but skills overall do not pass on genetically but culturally. And this means that your main advantage will be that your parents will make excellent baking teachers for you; if they bother to teach you and you bother to learn, that is! (And they might be able to open special opportunities for you too e.g. the family bakery or industry connections.)
There are some potentials you can possibly inherit e.g. due to inheriting a higher ratio of ‘fast-twitch’ to ‘slow-twitch’ muscles from your parents, or maybe a greater potential to pick up certain skills more easily – but skills must ultimately be personally learnt. Even arguably the most important human discovery or invention ever – the skill of lighting a fire from basic found materials – isn’t inherited genetically. You won’t know how to start a fire solely for possessing human genes. You could possibly discover how to all by yourself but you’ll highly likely at least need to attentively watch someone else do it first. The potential to learn and the work ethic to learn new skills are partly genetically inherited, but we still must personally learn and practise skills through our own efforts rather than believe they’ll be simply inherited.
It is unfortunate that good lessons like ‘division is bad’ are not, at least explicitly, passed on genetically after the many wars generations after generations of humans have experienced in history so far, but I suppose rubbish beliefs like ‘all blonde women are dumb’ aren’t explicitly passed on via genetics either. We need to personally learn the good, and hopefully not learn the rubbish. Thus one caveat to listening to and learning from others is that bad education can be worse than no education, just like bad practice can lead to ingrained bad habits. This is the value of questioning and cross-referencing information, and cross-checking facts and evidence from reputable and independent sources. (This blog, for example, is just one source of information out of many out there, and I hope my furry readers will cross-reference any claims and ideas postulated in any post with other reputable and independent sources too.)
To sum up, people don’t automatically know more about life just because they’re getting older. The passing of time alone will not teach us anything. Being older doesn’t alone automatically mean being more experienced at something (e.g. a person who experiences the loss of a close loved-one at the age of 10 is going to have more experiences of loss than someone who is 40 but has yet to experience the loss of a close loved-one). Personal experiences are indeed valuable, they can make learning something more effective and memorable, and personal experimentation is fantastic for discovering new things – so no one is saying that personal experiences are pointless here! But it’s limited to just your own (biased) experiences and experiments in this single life of yours, hence we should try to tap into the sum of all experiences and experiments by everybody in the entire world, today and from all of recorded history so far, via listening, learning and education too.
And indeed, the key after gaining knowledge is to then apply it! Learning about something is one thing – putting it into practice is another thing entirely (e.g. learning that smoking causes cancer and then trying to give it up. Smoking is a great example where you’d rather not merely learn from your own experience that it causes cancer – you’d want to learn it from others before you before it’s too late for you). And as encouraged in Post No.: 0015, we should remain a learner for life too!
Maybe you have some stories you’d like to share, via the Twitter comment button below, where your parents seem to cling onto outmoded beliefs yet think ‘they’re right just because they’re your elders’, or when people from abroad have misjudged an aspect of your culture for thinking they sufficiently know your country just because they’ve been there for a few weeks on holiday?!