Sunday, November 8, 2009

What is the price of experience?

The 18th century English poet and printer William Blake asked in a poem. Here is the first stanza:

"What is the price of Experience? do men buy it for a song?
Or wisdom for a dance in the street? No, it is bought with the price
Of all that a man hath, his house, his wife, his children.
Wisdom is sold in the desolate market where none come to buy,
And in the wither'd field where the farmer plows for bread in vain.

(You can check out a song setting of the poem by the Irish singer Van Morrison here.)

These lines came back to me yesterday while I was talking with my daughter Amelia. Her school encourages students to study abroad in their sophomore year--to have an international experience. She was accepted into a year-long program in Shanghai, and to a 2-month internship program in Lausanne, Switzerland in May and June. She's no longer certain about her major (international business) so Shanghai didn't make much sense. And she found out Friday what two months would cost in Switzerland--about $15,000 for room, board, and tuition. Learning that wasn't a crushing blow, since Amelia's expectation have shrunken for months and so this is simply another disappointment. But it is a blow nonetheless since there is no way on earth we can afford such a price, and so this opportunity, like many others, won't come her way either. (It is a galling thing to think that we--a two-income family earning far above the national average, are "too poor" to afford what is considered normal at a good but not world's-best university.)

If Blake is right, $15,000 is both too much and far too little to pay for experience. Too much because spending a huge pile of money to go to Switzerland is exactly the sort of behavior of the rich that he scorns (in the second stanza):

It is an easy thing to triumph in the summer's sun
And in the vintage and to sing on the waggon loaded with corn.
It is an easy thing to talk of patience to the afflicted,
To speak the laws of prudence to the houseless wanderer,
To listen to the hungry raven's cry in wintry season
When the red blood is fill'd with wine and with the marrow of lambs.

And too little because the cost of real experience, real wisdom, if Blake is right, is pretty close to everything.

Experiential education has been a catch-phrase for about two generations of higher education. When we use it we mean simply "learning by doing." And in that sense it is a useful pedagogy. But Blake (and Amelia) make me wonder if that is enough.

I don't mean to suggest that little experiences teach but little. I do mean to suggest, though, that one of the main problems with the high cost of education is that of inevitable disappointment--of students who ask themselves whether going to class is worth so much; and of humans, who wonder at the willingness of the wealthy to spend so much for what is really only a little--a couple of months, or four years, living among the privileged.

1 comment:

Peter said...

I wondered a lot about the notion of experience as learning by doing. I think sometimes experience is doing then learning. Many times in my life I had a chance to go and do something amazing- climb the Grand Teton or live with Maoris in New Zealand. It was not until the experience was happening and more often not until later, that I really learned something valuable. I never went in to those experiences wanting to learn something. I wanted to do something.

It seems like once academia gets hold of something it often gets twisted around a bit. I often hear from students about study abroad experiences that were nothing more than fun trips or taking classes in another country.Learning took place. But is it an "experience". Not sure.

Experiential learning can be done well (see National Outdoor Leadership School). But the academic view of it often leaves me wanting.