Experience vs Education

I left home when I was barely seventeen thinking in my hubris I had the answers. Experience has taught me that many young people are in this place. I’m sure there’s an evolutionary explanation.  My vehicle for leaving home was the US Navy and having decided at sixteen to experience everything in which I found interest, I volunteer for submarine service. I did learn, a lot. The most important lesson came when William P. Huley, the Executive Officer, sat me down for my first ever review. It did not feel good at the time and my hubris, rightfully so, took a major hit. Now I’m profoundly grateful for that experience. And, yes during the eight patrols I made we were in both calm and stormy seas.

As my young life moved on I gained my GED, then two high school diplomas, a number of college courses and a recognition of my ignorance. At twenty-six I left the Navy and immediately started at the College of Charleston, finishing four years later with a B.S. in Physics. Unfortunately in those things that truly matter I was still ignorant, but I had more experience and more education. Eventually, after another twenty-six years I started graduate school. It took a few years of concentrated effort, but eventually I became the happy recipient of three degrees. Lots and lots of education.

Consequently, my seas have been filled with a lot of both experience and education.  Here are a few general things I’ve learned.

  1. Experience is valuable and inherently focused on the experiential topic.
  2. Education is valuable and inherently lacks focus.
  3. Those who think “Education versus Experience,” are subtractive.
  4. Those who think “Education plus Experience,” are additive.

Humans have limited capacity to acquire, process, analyze and use the information coming from our senses. This idea is easily demonstrated by attempting to count objects. Most people can immediately recoginize 4 to 6 objects. Beyond that we have to start counting. Or, try texting and driving, not such a good idea.  This limited capacity forces our experience at any given moment to be highly focused. Over time the accumulation of experience can broaden one’s base of knowledge, but is limited by our own experience. If we experience disparate events we broaden our knowledge. However we, individually, remain limited by our sequential accumulation of experience.  Because I decided to experience at sixteen, I have accumulated a lot of experience.

The Population Reference Bureau  estimates somewhere around 109 billion people have lived or are currently living on earth.  That is a lot, a really lot, of experience.  Every person’s experience affects the people around them. Each person has the capacity to learn what they will from the experience of others.  Over time accumulation of experience became more formalized. Those that inherently had the capacity to retain the experience of others and to impart that experience became what we call teachers. Eventually someone had the bright idea, from experience, to make marks on something so they could remember and pass the experience on to others.  Cave drawings of animals are a representation of someone’s experience.  Eventually, marking it down became symbolic with little squiggles in clay, metal plates, stone, paper.  Now one could transport, duplicate and spread the experience.  We call that education.

Now we have the ability to accumulate the experience of thousands, millions, even billions accross every individual sequential accumulation of analysis, decision and action conceivable.

Now we have the ability to couple our own personally accumulated experience, no matter how broad or long, with the accumulated experience, education, of all those people across all that time.

Education coupled with Experience is the most powerful form of living. The combination has the power to allow extrapolation beyond the sum of the parts, allows each of us to achieve more, understand more, appreciate more.  As in all things the realization of this great power is entirely dependent on each one of us.  We can simply live and simply die or we can live powerfully and die, having left the world a better place.

Gould’s Rule 6 – In all things, leave people better than you find them.


2 responses to “Experience vs Education

  1. I find this interesting..having no formal education beyond high school. Don’t assume my lack of classroom experience has lessened my intellectual prowess, that would be an egregious error on your part. Nor should anyone look down on me for the decisions I made for myself and my family, or anyone else who chooses an alternate path. My father instilled a desire to learn, regardless of how or in what manner that was achieved. His most often given advice was , “you should learn something new every day of your life”. There are lessons in all that we do and we should always take something away from each experience life lays at our feet. Thanks for the reminder!


    • Excellent points. Knowledge and Intellect could be the subject of a blog itself. Knowledge are the facts you know. These come from experience and education. Intellect is innate ability to use whatever facts you have. They are not the same things. This idea is in fact what got me in trouble early in my life. Too much intellect, not enough knowledge, to use the intellect well. And of course, nothing whatsoever abrogates an individual’s worth. It’s interesting that intellectual predisposition may be a genetic trait.


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