Experience Required

A pro-business friend whose compensation is mostly commission and bonus-based believes every member of Congress should have to have been a business owner. In his mind I guess, we’re a business not a democracy. At the same time he’s quick to criticize and write-off the successes of Scandinavian countries even though he’s never set foot in one. Similarly, he’s quick to criticize public school teachers who prefer email to telephone communication even though he’s never taught.

Despite those inconsistencies, I’ll concede that when shaping policy, giving advice, or just plain stating opinions about something, direct personal experience makes one more credible.

But how far should we extend that notion? Should we prevent priests from doing marital counseling, preclude men from teaching women’s studies courses, not allow civilians to teach about war? In my thinking, there are meaningful, substantive forms of indirect experience that create a tipping point and conceivably qualify priests, men, and civilians to offer marriage counseling, teach women’s studies courses, and teach about war.

For example, the arts and the humanities—excellent theatre, film, and literature in particular—broaden viewers’ and readers’ perspectives about things with which they have no firsthand experience. I’ve never been to Rwanda, but watching Hotel Rwanda, even if we allow for inevitable artistic license, powerfully introduced me to the genocide citizens of that country experienced.

If perception and insight are a house, maybe the front door represents direct firsthand experience. Film, literature, and history possibly the side or back doors or the windows.

I have above-average knowledge of sub-Saharan Africa because I’ve lived and worked in one African country and traveled throughout three others. But my insights into the continent, and whatever credibility I might have as a writer or speaker on Africa, have been supplemented by non-fiction books, lots of African novels, and a fair number of African films.

The educator in me causes me to think broadly about the ways indirect experience supplements lived experience. I guess it’s the entrepreneur in my friend that causes him to think direct firsthand experience trumps everything else when determining policy, giving advice, or even at times, stating opinions.