Life at Reed: Knowledge from Experience

In preparing to write this entry, I consulted a book of aphorisms to get my mind brewing. The author recommended reading no more than four at a time. For the first two that I read, I thought deeply about how I would apply what I was reading to my life. In other words, I thought, “if I were to focus on this saying for a full day, or a few days, what would be the effect?” I continued on and read, well, I don’t know how many more. Suddenly I realized that I no longer remembered what the first few sayings were. I had read a few pages, and if I had waited another fifteen minutes, I could not have told you a single line. How many times have you done this? Last night I read thirty pages on the philosophy of mathematics, and eventually the same thing happened: I realized I had no idea what I had just read. Now, if my mind were stimulated by a few questions, I could probably recall a small fact or two. But I actually felt like I wasted time doing my homework, because I learned almost nothing. A few questions arise from this sort of behavior: How do you know when you know something? What is it to know something at all?

Here, I would not like to waste any time examining philosophers’ notions of knowledge. I want to know that I am getting something out of my education, that I am not wasting my life in my interactions with books and classrooms. The point I am trying to make is this: if you can’t say what you read, if you can’t use what you know, then you are wasting your time. You might as well quit studying, fuck off, and have some fun. Right now, our primary vessel for knowledge gain is college. College is supposed to teach you things: how to write, how to speak, how to manage your time, and how to work so that you can produce detail-oriented work within the constraints of a deadline; most people forget an overwhelming majority of the actual subject matter they learn within a few years. College, in this day and age, is usually a glorified certification agency for employers. The degree from the best school signals that the potential employee is better than other candidates at following directions and orders; this potential employee also values matters of career and “success” (the general American notion here) more than others and will put more effort and sacrifice more of their personal life to do well at given job. Is this potential employee smarter? Is this potential employee happier? Are they living a better life? I don’t know. We obviously can’t help but compare ourselves to others, and our view of such successful others is not informed by their experience (which may be rather shitty), but rather from the ideological picture we receive from society at large. But what does our hypothetical employee here know? They know how to work. They do not necessarily know how to be happy.

I believe that the majority of people are not conscious of what they are learning when they are learning it, nor do most people direct their knowledge-gaining toward a self-selected purpose. Most people accept a path (college, a career) and then react to whatever happens to them. These reactions shape their behavior, and, therefore, what they know. If you want a good life, it would be wise of you to create tests—periods of time in which you are forced to practice certain actions. If you’d like to be good at reading things and then immediately forgetting what you just read, then do that. If you’d like to be able to talk to anyone around you with ease, start making an attempt to do so. If you’d like to be a good writer, or to be able to speak with ease in conference, then spend less time reading, and more time writing your thoughts on the reading. Yes, it is painful. Wanna make it less painful? Try doing it frequently. Soon, it will not be a big deal.

People gain knowledge by doing, by practicing. You act in a certain way for a long, long time, and then get quite good at it. Let’s return to how you gain knowledge: you will not gain real knowledge by reading, watching, or absorbing. What is real knowledge? To me, it is internalized, it is practiced, and it affects you and your actions.

Here are a few more notes on knowledge:

  • Knowledge is largely domain-dependent. What you learn rarely transfers to other tasks. We are remarkably bad at recognizing the same ideas in other contexts. It would be wise to ask yourself, as you are learning a fact, “How could I apply this?” Then, take time to visualize the application of said knowledge to further cement its impact on you.
  • I assert that moral knowledge is almost always gained from experience, never from theory. This is a potential essay in and of itself. I am usually sorely disappointed by the failure of many ethicists to realize this. Moral laws and rules are gained by the acting out of right and wrong in certain contexts (cultures, populations, etc.) followed by the abstraction and extraction of general laws from what was felt to be right or wrong. If you want to be able to make moral decisions, it would behoove you to expose yourself to risk and to the contexts that others make decisions in (positions of poverty, power, etc.).
  • 5 minutes with an expert is worth 24 hours of internet research. Ask an expert what you should do. You can use this for career/relationship/etc. advice. The next time you begin to bang your head against a wall, try sending an email, making a phone call, going to office hours, or asking a friend.
  • Science itself runs on testing (experience). The theory is only important if it has been tested.
  • Note that you make better friends with time and experience. (Duh, Dan.) Further note, that going through some shit with your friends tells you exactly who your friends are. You can use this knowledge to build better friendships. Instead of sitting around and talking, go do something trying together—you will bond.
  • What you don’t know is a lot more important than what you do. Take this domain-dependent fact and try moving to some new places, living in some new ways, studying in different fields, doing some new activities, or making some new friends. Knowledge is best synthesized by interactions and clashes between the ideas you have and whatever new idea or experience you come in contact with.

Your homework, if you like:

  • Pick one area in your life where you want to improve. It does not need to be academics—much of our world at Reed is already structured around this. It might be a relationship, it might be a social attitude or behavior, it might be a phone call you should make, or a habit (eating a certain way, exercising) or a new skill you’d like to build. Write this one thing down.
  • Write down how you’d like to be in this area, or what you’d like to be able to do. Turn what you’ve written into a single sentence.
  • Now write down one easy action you can take to improve this area of your life. Here’s some examples: for a relationship, maybe you want to talk about an issue you have. Start with by voicing one sentence: I’d like to talk about ____. Done. The conversation will start there. For a social attitude or behavior: first visualize yourself acting the way you’d like to. Deeply feel how you want to feel. (I know this sounds like hippy-dippy BS, but it works, its practice.) Then try doing it, keep practicing, no one will care if you mess up. Make whatever action you are writing down as easy as you possibly can. If you want to start working out, try 10 minutes, three times a week.
  • You should now have three things written down: an area you want to improve in, a way you’d like to be, and one easy action you can take. Take this piece of paper, put it in a visible place, and just do that action. Pretty soon, you may become quite knowledgeable in that area.