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Is there anything as powerful as lived experience?

asweeney's picture

 I was in a class last semester where one of my classmates strongly expressed that it was not possible to discuss diversity in science or math classrooms since these classes are really just designed to “present facts.” It seemed that he was implying that some of us were being oversensitive in wanting to discuss this. As several of my classmates and I expressed our disagreement with him, I realized how powerful lived experience is in informing how we talk about these issues. I could only explain how women sometimes feel intimated to contribute in science or math classrooms because I KNOW how this feels. I could better articulate a scenario in which a female student might feel “silly” asking a question, or might preface what she says with an “I don’t know,” or “Maybe you guys disagree…” because I’ve done this before and try to be conscious to express myself confidently.

I’m a huge advocate for any kind of experiential learning because it allows us to know more than we previously did about the perspectives of others. Still, it’s impossible that any of us will ever really get to “walk in the shoes” of every person with whom we have had a different life experience. That would practically be every person on earth! In regards to education, then, can we teach or foster certain attitudes that ultimately become just as powerful as experience? How can we foster communities that are mindful of difference even if they have not experienced a certain phenomenon? How, for example, can I be the kind of person who is understanding about the challenges of balancing the identity between being both a Chem and English major when I myself have never had to do this? Or how could my classmate in the aforementioned example imagine what it feels like to be a non-male student in a science class when this has never been his lived experience? I think this is totally possible and something we are capable of in relating to one another as human beings, but it is nonetheless challenging and something I would love concrete ideas and tools to help me imagine. 


jccohen's picture


Your comment and questions remind me of a book by Gary Howard called, We Can't Teach What We Don't Know.  I agree that experiential knowledge can be deeply grounding in the ways you describe.  And I'd say that a more shared, diffuse model of knowledge would be one way to create the kinds of "communities mindful of difference" that you seek here.  That is, if we understanding learning communities as collaborative and mutually constructed spaces, then we have opportunities to hear/read/learn from each other and in this way to extend our own knowledge base.  Another way to come at this, going back to the original comment that you reference, is to open up an exploration of this notion of "presenting facts" -- a complex and important notion to unpack!