Learned Living

Learned Living

Regarding Hamlet, Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote that “knowledge kills action; action requires the veils of illusion.”He was quick to outline that Hamlet’s knowledge did not consist of an overabundance of choices or possibilities, which then made it impossible to choose between them. Rather, Nietzsche surmised that “true knowledge, an insight into the horrible truth, outweighs any motive for action.”2

How disdainfully Nietzsche would have looked, then—if he had ever been given the chance—at BYU’s Office of Experiential Learning, or at the Humanities Center’s research group of the same name, or at the Humanities+ program. Many of these fairly recently developments at BYU have cited as their inspiration President Kevin J. Worthen’s 2016 University Conference call for experiential learning in a speech entitled, “Inspiring Learning.” In the speech, President Worthen offers various beneficial connections between learning and “experience” (a concept I think would fit nearly into Nietzsche’s criteria for “action”)—among them a connection between theory and application, which eventually “deepens our understanding of the truths we learn.”Experience is a kind of learning in and of itself, according to President Worthen, and lends to an attitude of learning that lasts throughout life and even beyond it.

Contrary to Nietzsche’s claim that action exists disconnected from knowledge, President Worthen (and BYU more broadly) seems to take up the argument that action is a furtherance of knowledge, that understanding is bolstered by applying it through some sort of lived experience. Nietzsche might say that such a program would be specifically meant to remove students from knowledge, that grasping at experience is a way of buffering ourselves from the “horror or absurdity of existence.”However, BYU’s model hints that experience might actually connect us to reality in a way unattainable through thought or learning alone. Could action give us access to truth specifically without relying on illusory means—could it actually ground us in fact to a greater degree? But then if this is the case, then what role does study play in attaining knowledge?

As I was considering these ideas for this blog post, I happened to listen to the “Last Lecture” of Father Michael Himes, a theologian from Boston College. I want to say that this was kismet—that the universe conspired to bring me this fitting resource as I was working my way through these ideas. However, I have to confess here that since the time I first listened to it a few years ago, I have returned to this particular lecture dozens of times, bringing it up whenever I feel that I need a little extra guidance in my life; accordingly, it isn’t quite as large of a cosmic convergence that it might seem. Nevertheless, this week’s viewing was particularly timely, as Father Himes does seem to offer some intricate connections between action/experience and knowledge/learning that bear on BYU’s predicament.

As part of his overall argument, Father Himes embarks upon his own type of ars pedagogica—how he teaches theology.Within that framework, he explains how he teaches his students to study the tradition, but also to hold that tradition up to their own experience—which ultimately requires that they have experience in the first place. He explains:

Plato famously maintains that Socrates said that the unreflective life is not worth living. William James remarked that, yes that was perfectly true, but it was also true that the unlived life wasn’t worth reflecting on. That one has to live life. One has to enter into commitments and relationships with others in order to have anything worth reflecting on. It’s not a matter of locking ourselves in some ivory towers . . . and thinking our way toward reality; it’s about being part of reality—about living. It’s about entering into experience; it’s about seeking out new experiences; it’s about being a little bit daring with your life. It’s about doing what you didn’t think it was in you to do.6

Father Himes goes beyond experiential learning’s appeal to extra-curricular experiences, jobs, clubs, and internships, in order to claim that living in general is integral to truly interacting with knowledge. That connecting with people, groups, institutions; creating families, projects, causes; trying new ideas, new activities, new risks; all of this is vital to a personal engagement of knowledge. And once these experiences are in place (according to Father Himes) one can return to the tradition and enter into a dynamic relationship with knowledge gained through other sources:

It’s about holding together the tradition and experience, and allowing experience to give new insight into the tradition, and allowing the tradition to give coherence and an intelligibility, a way of understanding, to everything that we experience throughout our lives.

Tradition (or knowledge or learning) and experience (or action or living) function dynamically together, perhaps not even to lead us to what is “real” or “true,” in Nietzsche’s words, but instead to attach our own participation in life to those who have come before in meaningful ways. They provide references points in order to synthesize experience and knowledge from a diverse set of people and places and perspectives. They connect a learner into a complex web of discourse, allowing each to ultimately formulate new ways of thinking that respect and draw upon tradition.

“Experiential learning” at BYU, then, might extend beyond application as a means of deeper understanding (and certainly expanding past mere career preparedness). Experiential learning gives humanities students and scholars an opportunity to live, and by living to personally engage with study and contribute to the growth of knowledge itself.

Now as great as those ideals are, I do want to add a bit of my own lived experience to round out the learning/action relationship as I currently see it. A year and a half ago, as the 2017 school year was coming to a close, I realized that I was feeling a bit . . . atmospheric (or that is the best way that I can think to describe it). I felt so surrounded by ideas and theories—in both literature and mathematics—that I started feeling like I was only part of the air, floating without ropes or stakes to anchor me. I started wondering what good I was doing for the world. What really mattered to me? And how was I going to make it matter to others? I seriously considered joining BYU ground’s crew in an attempt to quite literally ground myself (and I would have if I had not left on a study abroad as soon as summer started). I wanted to feel the dirt in my hands and connect myself with growing life. I never considered this an effort to escape knowledge of reality, as Nietzsche might have thought, but rather as a means of making what I was learning more meaningful to the rest of my life, of grounding my studies to relationships of trust, to ways of personally improving life for myself and others, to experiencing corporeal reality.

Jump forward to the following year, and I ended up getting involved in several different English-related jobs, clubs, and research projects after returning from an internship abroad. I was surprised at the end of the semester—after having taken an even more erudite array of classes in theory than the prior year—that I was not feeling the same need to kneel in the grass to plant flowers. I felt incredibly content with my relationship to reality. I can only reflect now that my many committed and lived experiences probably provided a sufficient outlet for meaning. Not only did it help me to apply what I was learning (and thereby learn more), and not only did it provide a reference point from which to place alongside tradition, but it provided a way for that knowledge and tradition to feel valuable to real people in real experiences. I felt connected to other people, to causes, to action. I had required myself to collaborate and to produce outcomes and to establish relationships. According to my own life experience, then, the story of Hamlet doesn’t signify that knowledge causes a lack of action, but instead that knowledge coupled with the choice not to act provides a greater degree of meaninglessness in life, and therefore a deeper existential crisis.

So I am grateful for the programs on our campus and elsewhere that allow for experiences that require living. I applaud the public humanities efforts of our Humanities Center, and the faculty who involve themselves in our communities and our public discourse. I appreciate the opportunities that I’ve been given to live a little bit more fully and more committed through extra-curricular activities—as well as through activities that connect in no obvious way to academic learning. (I similarly appreciate the academic outlets of my life that ultimately make the living more meaningful as well). And I hope that others will have the chance to similarly dedicate themselves to causes that connect them to knowledge and to the rich lived tradition that surrounds us, whether or not those causes are explicitly academic. In this, BYU’s mission statement may actually stand preeminent: “All instruction, programs, and services at BYU, including a wide variety of extracurricular experiences, should make their own contribution toward the balanced development of the total person.”7

Drawing once more from Father Himes,

You have to live life. You have to enter into relationships with other people. You have to commit yourself to causes. You have to dedicate yourself to ideals. You have to be willing to give yourself to work,

if not necessarily to apply knowledge or to connect yourself to tradition or even to delay existential dread, then at least to ground yourself in a life a little more worth experiencing.

This post was written by Isaac Robertson, Humanities Center Intern.


[1] Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy, trans. WM. A. Houssman,1910. Project Gutenburg, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/51356/51356-h/51356-h.htm.

[2] Emphasis mine.

[3] Worthen, Kevin J. “Inspiring Learning.” University Conference, Brigham Young University, 22 Aug 2016. BYU Speeches, https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/kevin-j-worthen_inspiring-learning/.

[4] Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy, trans. WM. A. Houssman,1910. Project Gutenburg, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/51356/51356-h/51356-h.htm.

[5] I would highly, highly suggest listening to the entire lecture, either simply on your own or perhaps during a commute. It is intelligent, compelling, and inspiring.

[6] All of my quotes come from Himes, Michael. “The last lecture with Fr. Michael Himes.” Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hs3UCUqy8cg.

[7] BYU Mission Statement, https://aims.byu.edu/mission-statement.

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