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Book Learning Vs. Experience

This is a guest post from Adrienne Carlson, taking a look at two different types of learning.

by Adrienne Carlson

It’s a question that has been debated down the ages, one that often has no concrete answer but which has been argued well and hard nevertheless – do we need book knowledge or is practical experience enough to taste and enjoy continued success in life? If book knowledge is all that is needed, why do we need experience to secure a job? And if experience is all that matters, why go to college at all?

The truth is that there are advantages to both book learning and experience, and life is a success only when you’re able to find the right mix of both these vital ingredients. The combination depends on the kind of person you are and the career you choose to enter.

Books vs experience…

Book learning is advantageous when:

  • You need to prove what you know, through an exam or a series of tests.
  • You have to continue to improve and augment your knowledge.
  • You need new facts and information on subjects that are constantly changing and where knowledge is being updated continuously.

Practical experience comes in handy:

  • When you need to do the same things over and over again at your job or elsewhere.
  • When you need to understand the theory behind the concept.
  • When you need to become an expert at what you do
  • When you need to remember what you have read or learned – when you read a recipe from a cookbook, you tend to forget it soon unless you’ve actually prepared the dish a few times. The experience is embedded in your memory and your brain works automatically after the first few times.
  • When you want to learn things on your own. It’s easy to become an expert if you keep trying out what you want to do. You learn from your mistakes and don’t repeat them in the future.

In today’s world, it would seem that experience has the edge over book learning. But even so, most employers would never give you a second look if you haven’t been formally schooled or don’t have a college degree. You may have been working all your life, but the best jobs often go to those with the best education. So while experience is important, it loses its value unless built on a solid foundation of book learning, one that has been built brick by brick through school and college.

Agree? Disagree? Don’t care either way? Let’s talk!

About The Author: Adrienne Carlson regularly writes on the topic of accelerated online degree. Adrienne welcomes your comments and questions at her email address: adrienne.carlson1@gmail.com.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Lindsay January 16, 2010, 12:11 am

    Reading (not restricted to books) allows you to do the one thing practical experience doesn’t: learn from the mistakes of others. 🙂

    • Josh Hanagarne January 16, 2010, 2:24 pm

      That’s a great point.

    • j February 26, 2010, 12:08 pm

      You can also watch, and hear about others mistakes. Books don’t always capture reality,and there’s no bias in the truth.

  • Dawn Riccardi Morris January 16, 2010, 10:00 am

    There are many different types of learning and learners, and some of the most important learning we do occurs outside of a school or college setting.

    Life experience includes the books we read, the music we play or listen to, the people we speak with, the places we visit, the food we eat, and the questions we seek out the answers to. The more variety we have, the more likely it is that we will develop a passion for learning.

    We can learn so much about ourselves and the world through books and other reading materials, but it’s how we connect them with our real life experiences that matters most.

  • Kristin January 16, 2010, 10:16 am

    Lindsay brings up a good point. Reading also helps speed up the experience learning process. Each time you set out to try something new, if you’ve read about it once or twice, you’re more apt to zip through the awkward beginning stages. You don’t always have to go through the initial trial and error process to discover what works, you’ve already read about what works, instead you get to develop the muscle memory of your body figuring out what your brain already knows works.

  • albert camus January 16, 2010, 12:48 pm

    Agree with your article. The older I get, the more I realise the value of experience over book learning and the more I see the error of society’s shift toward giving such weight to qualifications over experience.

    As someone once said (who I read when doing my undergrad degree!) “Much memory or the memory of many things is called experience”

    • Josh Hanagarne January 16, 2010, 2:23 pm

      I’ve got plenty of education, way more than I need. I see the value in both sides, but I feel the same as I get older–I’m more aware of things I haven’t experienced, versus books I haven’t read.

  • Mike T Nelson January 16, 2010, 6:08 pm

    Good stuff here as always!

    I am with that tall librarian dude on this one in the education dept. I can’t wait to freaking graduate for the last time. Don’t even ask when I started college and if you mention the word post doc I swear I will leap through computer and slap you around.

    I like the concept of research (say book smarts) being filtered through the lens of personal experience/experimentation. The best of both worlds!

    Rock on
    Mike T Nelson PhD(c)

  • Wendy Priesnitz January 16, 2010, 6:13 pm

    I love reading this discussion on a librarian website! As an advocate for informal, non-school-based learning for over 3 decades, I’ve often said/written that libraries are the best example of the education system that I propose: a non-compulsory institution that people use because it works for them. Book learning is important – when it’s done out of curiosity and interest (and not focused on memorization and regurgitation); experience is more often how people learn.

  • Todd January 16, 2010, 6:53 pm

    For those embarking on a career, that little piece of paper that says that you’re learned shows potential employers that you are able to commit and see something through. If you receive training for a specific career, for instance engineering, you receive the ground work of a whole lot of math. No amount of experience will replace that. If you can not calculate loads, stresses, etc., you will not get to play engineer.

    That’s not to say that experience isn’t important. As we grow in a career, schooling becomes less important.

    For life in general, book learnin’ and general experience should probably go hand in hand.

    • Josh Hanagarne January 16, 2010, 7:26 pm

      I loved studying for and obtaining my degrees. Aside from the personal satisfaction I got, they both feel like really expensive membership cards.

  • Debbie Ferm January 16, 2010, 8:41 pm

    Oh my Goc, this topic has been burning in my brain lately because it seems everywhere I land, someone is screaming “You don’t need college.” “Schools suck and they don’t work.” It’s infuriating to me.

    I learn everything by reading. Everything. And I seek knowledge for knowledge’ sake. The knowledge that I have is far outweighed by the knowledge that I want.

    But everyone is not me and I know that. Any decent teacher in 2010 is aware of learning styles and the value of kinesthetic learning and how movement contributes to retention. That may not have been the case when most bloggers went to school, but hopefully students’ needs are being better met at this point.

    I don’t understand the attitude that it’s an either/or proposition. There is plenty of time for both formal education and hands on experience.

    Also, education does matter, even in the blogosphere, and here’s how I know. Have you noticed how bloggers who are degreed up the wazoo, but are not blogging in their area (lawyers come to mind), always say apologetically that they went to law school?

    They say it because they know that it will garner them some sort of authority right out of the gate. If it really didn’t matter, they wouldn’t say it. I dare you to find one person who has formal education and does NOT mention it on their blog.

    Ooh, I guess I got a little opinionated there didn’t I? Thanks for the post. I loved seeing what others had to say.

  • Debbie Ferm January 16, 2010, 8:53 pm

    And now excuse me, but I have to go find out who those arms belong to in the comment above me…

  • Nelia January 16, 2010, 9:36 pm

    ***Runs back to blog to see if I mentioned being an attorney..***


    I’m an opinionated chick, but I won’t discount one for the other. I find tremendous value (intrinsic and extrinsic) in both book learning and experience.

  • Debbie Ferm January 16, 2010, 9:56 pm

    Oh my gosh, Nelia. I checked out your blog. That cracks me up!

  • Randy January 17, 2010, 9:15 am

    Books do not offer experiences. They offer concepts which aren’t the same thing. Reading about bike riding and riding a bike are two different levels of experience.

    Learning through experience is largely a matter of creating distinctions: this from that. The greater the experience, the more subtle and varied the distinctions. One doesn’t learn to see color like an artist by reading about it, one learns to see color by the trial and error process of mixing paint. Relating and relationship: cool red vs warm red…you can’t “read” those into an experience.

    Certainly one can learn a great deal about anatomy from reading anatomy books, looking at illustrations and so on. But until you’ve done dissection, you don’t “know” anatomy…via books, you have only 2nd or even 3rd hand concepts of where and what things are. On the other hand, once one delves into dissection, the books “reveal” themselves in a deeper way. They become useful guides to the actual experience.

    The map isn’t the territory, but that doesn’t mean maps aren’t useful. A book may be a poor substitute for experience, but that doesn’t negate the value. On any given topic, sometimes a book is all you have and all you will ever get.

    • Nelia January 17, 2010, 5:05 pm

      Yeah, but books have the ability to alter the quality and the depth of your experience. You’re not limited to experiencing the experience from within your own paradigm. With book learning, you’re able to leverage an infinite number of paradigms.

      • Randy January 19, 2010, 1:00 pm

        Not sure about leveraging an infinite number of paradigms…a book after all is a collection of symbols that have to be interpreted and intelligible to whomever is reading, thus there is already a common paradigm between author and reader: language. Experience always devolves to language…symbols of experience. I don’t accept that interpreting the symbols of experience and the actual experience the symbols stand for are the same thing…indeed now you are regressed another step away: Step 1) The actual experience itself
        Step 2) The author’s interpretation of the experience via colored via his life experiences and encoded in the written word
        Step 3) The reader’s life experience colors her interpretation of the author’s interpretation of an actual experience.

  • Beth Oppenheim January 19, 2010, 10:02 am

    Hello! great post. I think I struggle a lot with this debate, as I am a 100% certified book nerd. I think there’s a place for both, and I have seen myself using books as a way to expand knowledge of things I don’t experience on a day-to-day. I also fully believe that reading books can improve your writing, as well as force you to engage with your own writing with a more critical eye.
    Great ideas!

  • Mallory January 27, 2010, 7:30 pm

    Though it appears to me that there are more advantages of having a greater life experience in comparison to having knowledge from books, I don’t think one is necessarily better than the other. I think both are necessary to be successful. Life experience can only get you so far. For that matter, a degree can only get you so far. Often you can’t get in the door without some experience, and you cannot advance without a degree.

    • Josh Hanagarne January 27, 2010, 8:52 pm

      I think most of my career success has been a combination of my love of learning–book knowledge–and my experiences, which are what have made me a person who knows how to live and interact with other people productively. Thanks for the comment!

  • JASON ILUSTRE June 13, 2011, 9:49 pm

    depends on the kind of attack (LOL) you choose to enter

  • Mohammad Saad Yaseen September 10, 2011, 10:54 pm

    Book learning FTW, if and only if one can visualize what the author is talking about. Plain reading without critical thinking and application is just something NOT appreciated if someone pursues book learning (this happens to me while reading English technical books since it is not my native language).

    Visualization is key because it will help the information to stick into your mind (sometimes it stays forever). Once it’s in your head, working on the job will be very easy.

    Learning on the job is also necessary since businesses will not wait for me to finish book learning about a technology 😀 . Obviously, output is key to them. Most of them are not so interested to know about the art of coding we do, be it by learning from the book or by any other means.

    However, pursuing “Learning on the job” solely can be bad. That’s because you can’t get to learn the “best” practices and solutions to common problems faced around the world by different problems. It’s a pain to solve common problems faced by other programmers on your own (yeah! those awkward beginner phases….)

    In my off time from work and family time, I read to visualize and practice (for long hours) from books. Seriously, it helped me very much and working on the job has become very much easier!

    • Mohammad Saad Yaseen September 10, 2011, 10:57 pm

      Oh, I missed one point. Book learning also gives easier access to Expert tips and tricks to boost productivity.

  • Nfally Mane December 21, 2011, 12:41 pm

    Book learning vs learning from experience is a topic I try to reflect to. In my own job (teaching), those who have done many years are more competent than the new commers. You have to be in continual learning-positure if you want to be at your ease when teachingin your classroom.But I don’t dismiss the fact that one must read many books or others’ recipes in our teaching-job.

  • Donna Kang September 22, 2012, 8:06 am

    I definitely agree that it is better to learn from experience. It not only works for cookbooks, but also for sports, school stuff, etc.

  • MJ Dooley October 7, 2012, 9:51 pm

    Book learning is worthless without some practical experience. And life experience consists of successes and failures. We always learn more from our failures. We learn next to nothing from our successes.