Experience Shining its Light on Reason

I am an inveterate collector of quotations from books and newspaper/magazine articles, accumulated in two quite thick journals I’ve been keeping for the past 15 or so years.

The quotes I pull from my readings are not always the author’s best writing, but rather what jumps out at me in the moment, usually influenced by something related that I’m thinking about.

Thus a few lines from Mathew Thomas’s fine 2014 novel “We Are Not Ourselves” made it into the quotation journal hall of fame. One of the main characters is a teenage boy thinking about graduating high school and going on to college, hoping that higher education will provide insights into his own confused behavior that weren’t clarifying at home. Thomas writes:

He was having another of those inchoate ideas that he couldn’t entirely articulate to himself. He knew that these cloudy moments would come into sharper focus when he was away at college, where he would divest himself of the stultifying habits of personality and the false conclusions of biography and shine the light of pure reason on experience.”

Thomas’s character is thinking along the lines most of us consider higher education: a place where reason shines and intellect thrives. It’s an accurate reflection of how his character would think, but it may not represent the best way to teach and learn.

I wish the last phrase had been transposed to: “shine the light of pure experience on reason.” My own early postsecondary experience at the overly cerebral University of Chicago convinced me that reason unfiltered through experience isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

The U. of C. described its undergraduate education as the “life of the mind,” confusing because getting out of their heads and into experiencing life is what students are seeking at that age. We hoped that through university we could learn what we felt about the world around us, be inspired to find a useful role for ourselves in the world, discover what love and friendship were all about and sort through emotions generated by the political, social, economic and cultural inconsistencies in the society around us.

It wasn’t facts or logic we needed to apply to experience, but rather trusting our intuition as a reliable guide to interpret our intellectual education. It’s not that reason is a bad thing, but reason untempered by learned experience is education in the shallows rather than the depths.

The confusion experienced by youth is caused primarily by a lack of experience. Learning from what we experience is a better antidote for confusion than reason, yet university education emphasizes academic learning over lived experience.

It wasn’t until I experienced scientific research that I learned the value of reason. My first years of university were a grade wasteland, peppered by C’s and D’s induced by a divide between the organized information I was presented with in class and my lack of experience to place course material in any context I could relate to.

But two research jobs changed that, the first studying brain evolution in 50 million year-old carnivore fossils and the second focused on the evolution of complex single-celled protists, events in organismal history that transpired about two billion years ago.

These were emotional experiences; as I travelled far, far back in time with the organisms I was studying, I began to feel the splendor revealed through applying science to unraveling the great mystery of where we came from. My courses began to make more sense with these visceral insights generated by doing rather than reading about research, and my grades improved.

Decades later, this template for learning through experience found a structural home in our SFU Semester in Dialogue program, with its brand “Experience your Education.”

But experience is not enough; we debrief and reflect on what the students have lived through, probing whether those experiences have shifted the way they reason about the world around them.

It’s experience shining it’s light on reason, diving into the depths where the deepest learning emerges.