Learning from books vs. learning from experience

Learning how to learn is a question of general interest, since everybody is learning something new every day. People want to be good at what they learn, but one cannot achieve this goal without putting the question as to the best way to learn a specific subject matter. When should one be more practical, and when should one be more theoretical? Not everything is contained in books, but not everything can be learned from experience alone either. 

Knowledge gained from theoretical books are usually the appropriation of systematized series of observations made by different people, while knowledge from experience comes from fewer individual observations made by a single person.  Scientific books, for example, are usually written summing up experiences of many individuals, trying to be as objective as possible. On the other hand, when one learns something only by his\her own practice, he\she has a limited number of personal, subjective experiences, before establishing his\her conclusions. When one writes down what he or she has learned only by personal experience, the result is not a scientific treatise, but a biography, for example. Knowledge gained from experience tends to be more contingent, while knowledge gained from theoretical books tends to seek universality.

Another difference between these two ways of learning is that theoretical knowledge gained from books gives us orientation to observe the real world of experience, but knowledge gained from experience, in its turn, might correct our theories about the world. Science works that way. If a scientist must look to a given phenomenon, how can he\she know beforehand what is important to observe in that specific case? Is it important, for example, to take into account the size of a laboratory when observing the behavior of radio waves? At first, it might seem that the size of the lab does not matter. However, an experiment once showed that the waves’ circulation was changed after hitting the walls of the lab, and that different results could be obtained depending on the size of the room. Philosophy of Science has since then highlighted that experience guides theory, but theory also guides observation of experience.

Finally, knowledge from books are more appropriate to certain objects or fields of study, while knowledge gained from experience is more appropriate to others. Plato discussed this question in his dialogue “Meno”, in which he asked the question whether virtue can be taught. Virtue, in Greek, is “arête”, which means “excellence”.  Plato pointed out that political excellence, for example, could not be taught, since great political leaders, like Pericles, for instance, could not teach their ability to their own sons, although these same men could teach them how to ride a horse or how to fight with swords. This seems to indicate that some things can be learned only by personal experience, but that others, on the contrary, are in fact teachable, i.e., can be learned from books. The object of study determines when learning from books is most suitable and when learning from experience is the best choice.

Neither can everything be learned from books, nor can everything be learned from experience alone. Learning gained from books, or theoretical knowledge, seeks universality, guides the observation of experience and applies only to teachable subject matters. Learning gained from experience, or practical knowledge, in its turn, is restricted by subjectivism and to teachable subject matters, although they can correct general theories about the observation of the natural world.

Glauber Ataide

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