How important is experience?

I remember about six years ago, I submitted an op-ed to the Cincinnati Enquirer, my local newspaper here in Cincinnati, Ohio. In that op-ed, I opined about the need for liberty and the failings of government from a historical perspective, but also within a modern context. The article was printed in the paper, but also featured on their Web site. I remember following the online comments quite excitedly to see what people were saying about it. Yet, what I came to find was that many people were lambasting me because of my age and so-called “inexperience.” I was dismissed as an ideological college student and nothing more.

Ever since then or more aptly, since I became interested in politics and social issues, I’ve been perturbed by this issue of “experience.” I feel as if young people literally cannot win with the prevalent mentality as is. That is, either young people are inexperienced ideologues that know nothing about the political and social issues they advocate or they are apathetic, lazy individuals that ought to get a job, go to college and care about issues of the day more. Or even better yet, there’s the in-between part where they do care about the issues of the day and are inexperienced, but they are also “brainwashed” by their liberal college professors and the academia institution as a whole.

How does a young person win on that? How does a young person get taken seriously for the views they hold? Quite obviously, by default, we are inexperienced precisely because we are young.  There’s no changing that until, obviously, one gets older and gains a variety of experiences. I’ve run into all of these (besides the apathy one) and I find them terribly annoying, but even more, I find these criticisms weak and somewhat of an intellectual copout. If the standard we’re going by is that in order to have an informed opinion one ought to have experienced that which he has an informed opinion about, then scarcely anyone would have an informed opinion about anything, much less a lot of things.

Certainly, I do not seek to dismiss older people that do have these experiences, but if the criticism is that inexperience biases or otherwise turns young people into wide-eyed idealists, then the opposite must hold true too that experience can bias or otherwise turn older people into close-minded cynics. Yes, I’m working in generalities here, as there are young people that refuse to take older people and their experiences seriously (thus, being close-minded) and there are older people that do in fact take younger people seriously and give weight to their viewpoint. Nevertheless, what I’ve espoused thus far, I’ve run into countless times, as my anecdote showed and other examples would as well, but I’ve also talked with my contemporaries that have likewise run into this roadblock of sorts.

Experience is most definitely insightful and worthwhile depending on the context, but that should not be the end-all-say-all in a discourse on an issue. There are glaring examples where we see that such thinking could be troubling. For instance, it would be damn near impossible for there to be an anti-war movement if we only relied on returning, former or otherwise disenfranchised soldiers who saw combat to form such a movement. Sure, could a soldier in the anti-war movement offer very valuable caveats and insight that otherwise wouldn’t have been there via his/her experiences? Most definitely, but that doesn’t mean we dismiss the anti-war protester as having no value because he/she wasn’t on the battlefield.

To digress a moment to expand on that last point, I’ve also run into the criticism of, “You just read that in a book. A book isn’t real life.” I find that to be sneakingly anti-intellectualism. Why is it so bad to read? Again, yes, even the best writer and the best book could never fully duplicate what it’s like to watch your crew’s Humvee in Baghdad run over and then explode via an I.E.D., but why the extreme negation? Can’t people that read books be taken seriously too?

If accruing experience entails turning into a jaded, cynical person with a cold outlook on the world, then I reject this accruement. Again, I’m working in generalities here, as not every older person is jaded and cynical, but in my experience (ha), that seems to be what the implication is.

Along with this idea of gaining experience, I’ve often heard this criticism, “Just wait until you get into the real world.” I think that mentality speaks more to what I’m referring to in terms of being jaded and cynical. First, as if young people are not presently living in the real world. We sure as hell are. We’re dealing with rising tuition costs, costs of living, debt, health care and a whole host of issues that directly impact us, not to saying nothing of the more abstract concepts worth investing into. Is it that that line entails the whole “being brainwashed by liberal academics” criticism? As if young people have no functioning brain and arrive in school as clean slates to be warped and molded. Secondly, what is this real world that I’m not seeing? Am I supposed to view it less optimistically? Does this go back to the idea of “wide-eyed idealism?”

Quite a few people over the ages have had young, “wide-eyed idealism” and went on to change the world. Well, isn’t that the exception to the rule? Maybe, maybe not, but while idealism has its pros and cons, I reject, nevertheless, as I’ve said, this cynical outlook on life. Well, wouldn’t you be cynical if you’ve lived as long as I have and seen what I’ve had? Yeah, like I said, there’s no winning here.

I don’t know what older people want from younger people. Do they want us to be engaged or not? Do they want us to offer up our perspectives or not? Is it just simpler than this? Because maybe it’s not so much that they begrudge our involvement or our passion, but that our “young, idealized perspective” just isn’t theirs. Own up to that and say you simply disagree instead of falling into intellectual copouts that make discourse between generations a nonstarter.

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