Theory and Practice

My college years were in the late 60’s. I noted that during the years of training we were exposed to a great deal of theory. My complaint to the “powers that were” was; “This is all very fine, but we need practical knowledge and know how to go alongside all this theory.”
We live in a world, and in a culture where a piece of paper, stamped with some college or university’s backing and approval is very acceptable and the desired thing.  For some that certificate and status symbol gives great confidence. The recipients of these pieces of paper are inclined to become overnight “experts”, and lords of their discipline, demonstrating great academic knowledge and putting everybody else right, particularly those who do not have their own piece of paper.
The problem for me and my own personal perspective is that I am old enough to see that often the status information given by the piece of paper holders is not always correct. More than that, I see that more often than not the practitioners who do not hold the pieces of paper are often far more knowledgeable that those who do. Usually, after inquiry, I discover that deep and practical knowledge of almost any discipline and/or profession usually comes from years of experience in that discipline, learned at the coal face.  It’s a bit like learning to swim on dry land. Theory is great – but practice is somewhat different.
Now I am not decrying theory. Actually, I think it is very important, and will enhance practice.   I know that what we think will eventually come out in how we act. This means that if our thinking is wrong then our practice will probably be wrong also.  I am all in favour of people understanding the theory. Put good things in your head, right things.  However we still need those hands on the job, or, seeing it another way, getting one’s hands dirty, or a real water experience.
On that issue - the water one that is - I am somewhat of an expert.  You see, I come from a family where everybody could swim and swim well.  My Mother was thinking of doing it professionally and challenging the channel.  So swimming was sort of talked about and considered a lot in our house.
One day I went swimming. Swimming with a load of big boys who went bathing all the time. They asked me if I could swim. Well!  I had never done it in water before, but boy, did I know the theory.  I listened to their feats. Then, at the pool, they asked me again, can you swim? What could I say? Of course, I responded with “I can”.  I think they were suspicious of this smaller boy’s great theoretical confidence.  So, in the pool they congregated at the deep end.  “Are you sure you can swim?” they asked again.  “Of course I can,” I confidently replied. Thinking to myself, “I did it across a chair, and on the bed, and on the floor at home. What’s the difference?”
“Right!” they said, “What we want you to do is to jump in here at the deep end.”  It was a depth of 6 foot 6 plus. What could I do? I decided that face saving was the most important thing on this occasion. So, plucking up courage, I jumped. Yes! Into the deep end.
I have to say that I learnt to swim very, very quickly, but it was not a pretty sight. Not only was it not a pretty sight, it was not a pretty sound.  All that practice across a chair seemed to count for nothing. Water did not quite have the same feel as the carpet at home.
I believe in theory, but I also believe in experience and practice. It is not “either – or”. It is both. And if you have just got the bit of paper and not much practice, may I suggest that a little bit of humility goes a long way.
A .H.
Edited  K. L.

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