In The Schoolmaster, written in 1570, Roger Ascham compares schooling to experience, and he takes the stance that learning is much more desirable than experience. He argues that a man will learn more within a year than he would in twenty years of experience, that experience is dangerous while learning is safe, and that man will only become miserable because of his experiences. Ascham’s beliefs are true, but his principles can only relate to a man who is satisfied with living a superficial life; that is, an existence in which he is only seemingly wholly content with himself and his surroundings, willing to stay in a narrow box of conformity.
What Ascham doesn’t realize is that learning and experience provide two different levels of understanding, each with its own level of importance. Experience is a type of learning within itself, learned through hardship and misery. Although learning may teach safely and a man may not feel this affliction through his schooling, he is only shrouding himself with a drape in an attempt to hide from the world and, more importantly, himself. And although experience may be devastating, and shattering for the heart at times, the long-term wisdom that man gains from experience, is by far the most valuable sort of lesson.
Roger Ascham comments at the beginning of the passage that, “learning teacheth more in one year than experience in twenty.” It is true that in one year a man will learn far more information in a single year of schooling than he would from only enduring hardship. A man will even absorb knowledge that will help him to “succeed” in life and gain the necessary skills to make substantial earnings and he will find that he may even be considered a great scholar because of his knowledge. It is this sort of learning that molds men into lawyers and merchants and politicians, men whose scholasticism we greatly value today, but not necessarily the men whose persona we admire.
However, Ascham’s argument must be questioned. Is experience itself not a sort of learning? By simply living life, is a man not constantly realizing and changing himself to convert himself into a better being? It doesn’t take twenty years for a man to rejuvenate his life; even a single day can be invaluable if a man gains experience. Ascham does not realize that experience is valuable in the course of life, that a man can learn great values and morals only through experience; these values and morals are what shape men into those we admire, into truly great men. Experience teaches more in an instant than any type of schooling can in a lifetime.
Immediately after his first statement, Ascham comments that “learning teacheth safely.” There is no argument here: learning is always safe; man will always be able to increase his knowledge without fear of anything going astray. Learning is definitely not a misfortunate experience, and a man can always soak his mind with new information. But of what use is learning if that man has done nothing with his life? In order to truly live, a man must come out of the closed box of conformity, and come to terms with reality. It is of no use to be safe, if a man has not truly lived, if a man has deprived himself of a true existence because he is afraid of something that might not be so safe, something that is dangerous.
But life itself is dangerous, and we must come to terms with that and be willing to live such a life. Shrouding ourselves with learning, with safety, will not move us forward in life; man will not be able to find his path. If all that a man has in his life is learning, then when his time has come to leave the world, he will see that he prevented himself from following his path, his course, his true destiny, and he will leave his existence unhappily.
Experience brings sorrow into life, but with sorrow, experience brings insight. However, Ascham only sees that “experience maketh more miserable than wise.” Perhaps man does become miserable after facing difficult realities; the pain that a man feels after a debilitating loss is crippling, and man hates his life for he feels that “costly wisdom is brought by experience.” Man can choose to stay miserable after experiencing pain and hardship, or he can choose to realize and move on. Man always has the opportunity to learn from past events in his life and become a person with strong morals and values. But to stay miserable forever, is also man’s choice.
Thoreau once commented in Walden that “However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names…it looks poorest when you are richest. The faultfinder will find faults even in paradise.” We should all live by Thoreau’s principles, for they will help us lead better lives. We may, perhaps, be living in paradise, and not understand it because we think our hardship is greater than any other.
To lose something, is to gain another. If a man feels affliction, he will gain experience, and along with it, he will gain a greater understanding of life: true wisdom. Perhaps life would be easier if we would all be satisfied with a simple existence, living with only knowledge of facts and figures, but would life be greater? Man can only advance if he allows himself to and learns from his past experience. For a man who constantly wishes to turn his dreams into reality, for a man who desires to always improve himself, Ascham’s statement is merely an excuse to cower from the sometimes harsh realities of the world.
Therefore, learning does not teach more in one year than experience does in twenty, learning may be safe but safety is just a cover, and the wisdom gained through experience well worth the misery that must be endured. Rather than We must all live by Thoreau’s belief that, “…if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”