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Everybody Attends the School of Hard Knocks

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Grandad’s knowing was not so different from my own

What knowledge works best?


My grandfather, when faced with the schools and degrees and academic pursuits of his grandchildren, would typically say he went to the school of hard knocks. He grew up in the great depression and was on speaking terms with want. In the Navy he literally experienced hard knocks—one of which resulted in a metal plate in his skull. Later in life he was something of a salesman and generally learned by doing. His was a kind of knowledge easily passed on because it relied on behavior and action and movement. You could see what he did and you could do it too, or at least try to.

Same with my father: what I know about fixing stuff I learned from watching Dad. It takes me longer, or course. And I fail several times before I finally succeed (if indeed, I ever succeed). And, yes, the occasional plumber’s word gets uttered during the fixing.

Walter Ong wrote about the transition from oral to literate cultures. He noted that knowledge passed verbally was quite different from locating knowledge on a page. One fatality of the movement from oral to literate culture was that learning became a more isolated thing rather than a thing we did together:

In an oral culture, knowledge, once acquired, had to be constantly repeated or it would be lost: fixed, formulaic thought patterns [that is, clichés] were essential for wisdom and effective administration. (Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: the Technologizing of the Word. NY: Routledge, 1993. 24)

Today our schools consist of lots of reading (which is good, which I applaud) and some hands-on. But in generations past there was not so much opportunity for spending a few years in college, let alone graduate school. People learned from each other any way they could. Apprenticeships helped, and helping Dad build a wall or a house—all these were the stuff of learning.

It seems to me still that experience is the best teacher. Not that books aren’t great. I’m a committed reader. But the best, most useful knowledge, the kind you can pass on to someone else, comes from information plus experience. Some mysterious forging takes place in the cauldron of reading + doing + telling + interacting with others. The result is a very strong knowledge that is also highly communicable.

More than once I’ve heard business owners and recruiters say they favor those who have experience in their field compared with those who go directly from bachelors to masters to doctorate.

Once the information we’ve read becomes something we do with our hands or something we can communicate to someone else, it becomes very useful indeed.


Image credit: Okkultmotionpictures (American Red Cross, “Why Not Live”) via 2headedsnake

Written by kirkistan

August 6, 2013 at 10:05 am

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