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The Value of Experience

Take a look through the employment section of the classifieds, and you'll see how much employers value job experience. They assume that people learn something from that experience. On the other hand, look at what happens in the classroom and you'll realize just how little we value personal experience. Of course, job experience is simply a sub-category of personal experience, but somehow we've gotten the silly notion that what you learn in the workplace is more important than the tree you climbed when you were a scraggly kid.

Every term at least a few students tell me they have nothing in their lives worth writing about, and I'm sure many think it without telling me. How can someone think so little of the events that have brought them where they are? I'm afraid teachers are one of the main causes. On the writing assignments we tend to tell students what form to use, what length, style, subject. One way or another, almost every choice (directly or indirectly) ends up being made by the teacher, even when the teacher doesn't think so. Even when the assignment is to write about a personal experience, the teacher makes the choices. Simply requiring a thesis statement, much less making artificial claims about where it must be, takes too much away from the student. Immediately, the form becomes more important than the experience, and therefore more important than the student. No assignment can be more important than any student.

In addition, personal experience papers are often used as minor assignments, mere warm-ups for informative, argument, persuasion, all saying that these forms are more important than experience. And, of course, the student is supposed to go first to external sources, find what someone else has said about these matters, and plop it onto paper in the "proper" form. It's little wonder that one of the most common questions students have is "What do you want?" They're smart enough to realize very quickly that our school system is based on pleasing the teacher, not on learning. And then teachers have the nerve to complain that they get the same kind of papers over and over every term.

Why should students avoid plagarism when that's all they've ever really been taught to do? A few years ago, I had a non-traditional student who was single mother of two children and already into a successful business career. She was intelligent, motivated, and she wrote quite well. Part way through the term, she brought me a writing assignment she had done for another class to she if I could understand why she had gotten such a bad grade. The assignment required her to write about Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, if I recall correctly, with the emphasis on her own opinions. Her response was well written, but there wasn't a trace of her opinion. Everything was from secondary references, though all done with precision. I asked her point blank if she didn't think her opinions were worth writing. She responded immediately that she didn't have a right to an opinion when people who knew more than she did had already written about the subject. Sadly, I've learned that far too many students share that opinion. What's worse is that teachers do as well.

While I was unintentionally making waves a few terms back, I ended up in conversation with one of the tenured faculty, a well-respected teacher who recently won an award for teaching. During that discussion, he told me that if students were really honest, they'd footnote every sentence they wrote until at least they're junior year in college because they don't have anything of their own worth saying until then. That was the same term that another faculty member and a member of the administration told me the freshmen students weren't good enough for the methods I used because I expected students to make their own choices and learn from them. Both of these old-guard academics asked me, "How will a student know if they have a problem with organization if you don't tell them?" I responded that the students tell me, but both people asked the question later in the discussion because they weren't really listening anyway and because they couldn't or wouldn't understand my response. They assumed that students were incapable of learning from experience because they hold both students and experience in disgustingly low regard.

The problem is worse when you realize that we really have nothing but personal experience. When you read a book, you don't have the book. You have the experience of reading the book. When you put your hand in the fire, you have the experience of getting burned, but you don't have the fire. We can refine our perceptions and work to make our thoughts as objective as possible, but everything is filtered through the senses and translated by the brain. That's why all action is creative and interpretive. You're interpreting these words, these symbols, as you read them and creating your response based on the various filters (perspectives) you have. Teachers and students are interpreting differently because their perspectives and experiences are different. Now there's a real kicker. We interpret experience based on experience. If we don't value experience enough to study it, understand it, and use it well, then every interpretation will move further and further from anything we would dare call true. How else could a good teacher and good person reach the point of believing that students can't learn or think?