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Education comes not from books but from practical experience.


There is a basic philosophical tension between theory and practice, basic and applied science, learning and doing, head and hand. Not surprisingly, professors hold books in high esteem. But students are often frustrated by the abstract, seemingly impractical nature of traditional instruction through textbooks and assigned readings. Students hunger for real experiences that teach practical skills and demonstrate clear links between classroom work and practical application.

Tomorrow's leaders and professionals need to work with the tools of their trades, to develop the crucial personal qualities-interpersonal skills, moral judgment, decision making under pressure-that are required for success in real world situations. In fields as diverse as construction and medicine, one thing is certain: experience counts. No matter how many blueprints or books on architecture an aspiring carpenter reads, there is no substitute for working on a construction crew. The same is true for the aspiring physician. An effective bedside manner is learned next to the patient's bed, not in a study carrel. Doctors must read case histories and study theories of treatment, but doctors also need to see patients, listen to them explain their symptoms, and see the outcome of various therapies. Doctors can't just read about how to perform surgery; they need to practice their artistry with a scalpel in hand.

Despite the immense value of practical experience, it must also be acknowledged that books provide the basics. Certain fundamentals are required in any course of study, and books are an appropriate starting point. For instance, in preparation for a medical career, one must be familiar and comfortable with many facts of science. Without a thorough understanding of biochemistry and anatomy, one can hardly be expected to learn much through practical experience. In this case, the professors are right to stress the importance of books. Mastering the content of a subject is a vital first step.

Beyond content, books also educate by teaching students how to think, not just what to know. Often books are the stimulus for creative processes, and they are also a medium for reflection on past experiences. Ethical and moral dilemmas are explored in literature, for example, and the perceptive student who ponders these questions will be better prepared to face them in practical situations. Furthermore, medical students, as well as trained physicians, will find it valuable to read of new discoveries, theories, and the outcome of various studies in the hundreds of books published each year in the medical field.

Reading and doing, head and hand, these seemingly polar opposite approaches to learning, are actually complementary. What we learn from books prepares us for applying that knowledge in real life situations. Similarly, our experiences "on the job" may send us back to books for deeper study or thoughtful contemplation.


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