In the immortal words of Jay-Z:
“They read a bunch of words, I’ve lived a bunch of life”
Several times in the past year I have come across scenarios, whether in writing or in conversation, where I have been asked to comment on what should be seen as a false dichotomy between book knowledge and hands-on experience. Within academia, there seems to be a premium placed on book knowledge. However outside the auspices of higher education, there seems to be a skepticism, or at the very least, a disinterest, in book knowledge.
This notion of one form of learning being more important than the other should be quickly rejected. If we are to pursue knowledge, to seek truth, then we must seek book knowledge and hand-on experience. Books, or more simply the ability to communicate complex ideas and information to large groups of people and between generations, has been proposed as one of the reasons that the human race has outpaced all other species. Books, specifically written language, has allowed us to build upon the work of those before us and to work in collaboration with others who are spatiotemporally isolated from us. Airplanes, architecture, GPS, medical innovation, and countless other technologies that are taken for granted today, would not have been possible if books describing the work and innovation of our predecessors were not available. No Newtonian mechanics- no flight. No publication of scientific findings- incremental and uncoordinated scientific research and medical innovation. No writings on special relativity- no GPS. Conversely, the importance of practical experience cannot be overstated. As pertains to the study of medicine in particular, one could memorize the book on anatomy but be wholly unequipped to take hold of a scalpel and remove a tumor from the brain of a patient. One of the criticisms of education in general has been that students are taught to memorize and take tests but lack the practical skills to reason and problem solve. The ability to take tests well is excellent, but must also be coupled with the ability to engage real world problems, to cut into a patient, to fly an airplane, to climb a mountain, or to build something new. While examples ad nauseam could be used to emphasize the importance of combinatorial book knowledge and practical experience, the driving of a car is one of the best. When learning to drive a car, one must both learn the rules and the basics from a book. However, that book knowledge will not translate into the ability to gently accelerate, brake automatically, or turn gracefully into a parking space. Instead the book knowledge opens the door for the building of practical knowledge. To attempt to do one without the other would be foolish. So too, excellence in many areas of life requires building up of book knowledge and practical knowledge together.
For most of us this means pushing us the direction we are uncomfortable. If we love curling up with a book but despise the dirt between our toes or the intricate details of building something with our hands, our challenge is to go out and live life to gain practical experience. If we love trying things without the book, foraging ahead with little knowledge of the field or of those who have gone before us, our challenge is to pour a cup of coffee (or tea), and curl up with the book our counterparts left us.
Therefore, instead of proposing a dichotomy to learning, how much better it would be, when all is said and done, to be able to say…
“I have read many books, and l have lived a lot of life.”