Jesus Christians.com

Preferred Language:  English | Espanol | Deutsch | Francois | Po Polsku | Easy English

Learning by Example



I had thought of calling this article "Common Sense", but I have already written an article with that title.  Anyway, I want to specifically focus on that aspect of common sense which relates to how we pick it up through observations of how others behave; and so the title is appropriate.
This idea of common sense is one that people without formal academic training often say is lacking in people who have gone through the education system, i.e. that they have heads crammed full of facts and figures, but little appreciation for life in the real world.  However there [i]are[/i] opportunities for students to pick up wisdom in school too, if they have a bit of common sense to begin with.  I found, during my studies, that there were students who were only interested in passing exams, and who did not really internalise the lessons which were part of what they were being taught.  These are the ones who typify lack of common sense amongst academia; but it does not need to be that way.
This idea of common sense is one that people without formal academic training often say is lacking in people who have gone through the education system, i.e. that they have heads crammed full of facts and figures, but little appreciation for life in the real world.  However there are opportunities for students to pick up wisdom in school too, if they have a bit of common sense to begin with.  I found, during my studies, that there were students who were only interested in passing exams, and who did not really internalise the lessons which were part of what they were being taught.  These are the ones who typify lack of common sense amongst academia; but it does not need to be that way.

I particularly noted this in psychology and sociology classes.  The famous experiments by people like Milgram and Asch come to mind.  These experiments illustrated how a large proportion of the population appears to unthinkingly follow the crowd or whoever is currently being touted as an "authority", rather than developing the ability to think things through for themselves.  One could be challenged to "learn by example" from what they read of the Milgram/Asch experiments, and thus resolve not to become an unthinking robot; yet I did not pick that up from many of my fellow students.  Instead, there seemed to be a rush to get a lab coat for themselves, and to do whatever the lecturers expected in order to get one.  In other words, they were not really internalising the lesson from those experiments, because they were only interested in passing exams.

I am pleased that my own children did seem to pick up this learning by example trait even when they did not agree with me on other things.  Kevin, for example, has now had some formal training in art; but he was painting masterpieces long before he undertook formal training, and he did it just by observing other painters and paintings.  He would spend time studying a painting and then attempt to duplicate the techniques that he felt the artist had used.  By the time he had enrolled for a fulltime course in art, it is quite likely that he actually knew more about real art (not the theory, but actually doing it) than many of his instructors.  This is because he had, all his life, been learning by observing the examples of other artists.

For myself, I have never had formal training in management, business, or writing, and yet I managed to acquire a fair bit of skill in each of these areas just by observing others.  I wish I had had the time to get formal education in all of these subjects, but failing that, I have been able to get by through observing and following the examples.  And I would like to encourage others to do the same.

Of course, when one learns by example, there is always the problem of poor examples.  In leadership, for example, I picked up some bad habits from both my own father and from David Berg (of Children of God notoriety).  Both gave me the impression that "authority" is linked with "blasting" people who have done something wrong.  I have tried to correct that in recent years (and I think my father did too, as he got older); but there are a lot of people who have been hurt by my blasts in the past, and I'm very sorry about that.

The positives of learning by example go much farther than just imitating specifics, however.  The person with common sense is constantly asking themselves questions like, Why (or how) is he/she doing that?  Why do shops have weekly specials, and how do they decide which items to reduce?  How do artists make some things appear to be farther away than other things?  How does an author maintain a person's interest for hundreds of pages?  Or, in the case above (where I came up with the wrong answer):  Why does a leader express anger when something is done wrongly?

Let me give a better example of learning by observing, in terms of leadership.  Many years ago, Cherry showed me an article on management, which taught employers to set up a system called "empowerment" amongst their staff.  "Empowerment" encourages employees to set goals for themselves, and then the employees observe how much progress they are making toward achieving those goals.  I could see that the program was slanted toward increasing production and profits for the company, but I could also see that it had the advantage of getting workers to take personal initiative and personal responsibility for their performance.

I had, in other words, asked myself why and how it worked.  Then I came up with an empowerment scheme that let every member of our community set their own spiritual goals quite outside the myopic production/profit paradigm of traditional management schemes, and the result was that members stayed motivated in a hundred different ways (most of which were kept entirely secret from the rest of us) to improve themselves spiritually.  I have been able to successfully introduce that same concept to others outside of the Jesus Christians, without any need to direct what goals they might choose.  And it works because I was able to see the why and how in the example of other leaders, and apply it in my own circumstances.

Sadly, I don't know how to pass on this ability to learn from observing others at work, and it may be that some people are simply not wired genetically to learn it.  It is virtually impossible to make enough "rules" to cover every given situation, and yet that seems to be what most people need.

Organisations like McDonalds thrive because they largely cater to the non-thinkers.  McDonalds can employ almost anyone, give them a limited series of procedures to follow, and then let them loose on the public.  But anyone who has ever asked one of those employees to do anything so complex as to remove the cheese on a cheeseburger and replace it with lettuce will see just how hard it is for these sort of workers to think outside an extremely limited box.

Nevertheless, thinking beyond the rules does seem to be a big part of what Jesus and some of his followers (e.g. St. Paul) saw as spiritually important in the eyes of God.  God wants people who don't build a new denomination over what day of the week should be kept holy so much as they ask themselves what the purpose of the rule was in the first place, i.e. someone who asks, "Why did God say that?  And How does that relate to other issues in my life?"

A hundred million Catholics all over the world can recite their way through the mass; but it is hard to find one in a thousand who is able to share fluently about their own personal relationship with God.  And amongst those evangelicals who would feel smug about a phrase like "personal relationship with God", it is equally difficult to find one of them who can share deeply about that relationship without slotting into further recitations, albeit this time from the Bible.

Until we have learned to ask ourselves why and how (for example) the death of Jesus is significant in this or any other age, we will be destined to just recite doctrinal defenses put together by long-robed clerics, ever fearful that we may not cross all our t's and dot all our i's, and thus risk being called a heretic.

In conclusion, learning by example is something that I see as crucial to spiritual growth, at the same time that I find it to be missing in so many of those who make up the masses. Learning to ask ourselves "Why?" and "How?" could be helpful steps toward developing this skill; but, apart from that, I don't have any easy formula for generating this aspect of common sense. I hope that just discussing it here and elsewhere might enable some to pick up little clues in their own lives where they could be exercising more common sense in terms of learning from observing the examples of others.
Mail us at:   fold@idl.net.au,    OR write to:    Godstuff Comix,  P.O.Box A678, Sydney South, Australia 1235