How Do I Learn From Experience If I Don’t Have Any?

Earlier this summer, I got an email from John Buchanan, a current student in the Torrey Honors Institute:

Hello, Dr. Jenson.

As you may be told from time to time, you are the mentor that seemed sensible to talk to regarding the subject of this email… Probably because you are a younger male but who knows for certain. I wrote this email in the same form as I would talk to you about something in an office hours, but as there is no more time for office hours, I am hoping an email will suffice. I wrote quite a bit at first, which was probably just for my own benefit, and have condensed it to the core. I understand if you do not have time to reply, and thank you for your time and wisdom.

Am I supposed to be learning about how experiences happen before I experience them? I feel robbed of my experiences. The knowledge I am gaining from Torrey is undoubtably invaluable, but I am young and full of energy and ideas. I do not feel qualified to talk for three hours (or write a paper) about sex, or love, or being old, or being even twenty-years old (because I am not yet), or ruling, or being ruled, or dying, or so many other themes. I do not even feel qualified to talk about friendship because I have only since beginning college started actually being in completely healthy friendships.

What is the expectation of me as a young student? Am I to bring experience of truth into discussions or learn about truth from words while in a chair? How am I supposed to know what beauty is if I am trapped inside all day?

If you have any understanding of this to pass on to me (through written words, ironically) I would appreciate them.

I cannot wait for the summer.

- John Buchanan

What a great question. To learn about something, it seems we’ve got to know about it already to some extent. This was the quandary Socrates considered in the Meno. If I don’t know something, I can’t begin to search after it; if I do know it, there’s no need to. Here, John’s asking a particular form of this question with reference to the knowledge that comes from experience. We learn best through cycles of action and reflection–but what if, as John suggests, we don’t have broad or deep enough action on which to reflect? Who knows, maybe we should just postpone college till, say, age 40. Give people some basic skills, get them out living life, then invite them back in middle age to reflect on their lives so far.

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