A question I’ve had to grapple with on many occasions is the question of ‘knowing’ -how do we know anything? And how do we decide to trust someone else’s knowledge? Whether or not we think of it much we all have an opinion on these questions. As an aspiring psychologist why will people decide to accept my advice or authority and why will others not? Why do some people go to books for parenting advice while others go to fellow parents? What or who decides which knowledge is better? Which knowledge is valuable? Or which is worthless?
The answer lies behind the fundamental question of how we know in the first place. What I would like to deal with is two ways of knowing I believe to be fundamental: knowledge about something vs. knowledge of something (Similar to the quantitative vs qualitative knowledge).
As we discussed the issue of of self disclosure in the clinical setting my professor posed the question of when it was appropriate for a psychologist to self disclose. One of my colleagues answered that its best when you’ve experienced the same trauma as the patient so you relate them -I question this technique. Firstly for the more logical reason that if your clinical work is based on personal experience you’ll be sure to run dry soon enough, the second is that experiential knowledge is specific and subjective. For example: I was once hit by a car while walking home, in the immediate moment I felt no pain -I thought of nothing and no one, a few moments later I was in excruciating pain and weeping. Soon my family arrived and I was driven to the hospital. I was out the same day and continued to feel back pain days after. I had concerns about why I didn’t call to God for help in that moment , about what I did to deserve such pain and gratitude for my life and my limbs. Does being hit by a car make me instantly able to relate to everyone who experienced such an accident? Does it give me a broad knowledge on the subject? Does it make me an expert on the subject?
Maybe on face value, but my experience is my experience. My surrounding emotions, my physical pain is particularly unique to my person. Relating my experience in words -even in details, does not give you my experience it merely indicates it -points towards it. But it does not give you any knowledge of being hit by a car any more then it gives me authority on being hit by cars. Experiential knowledge isn’t (in itself) valuable to others.
As a psychologist or any other professional your valuable to your client because of your knowledge in your particular subject. Precisely because your knowledge is general, broad, and based on the experience of many, makes you valuable to others. Because no two people are alike we have to make generalizations, stereotypes and templates in order to live in the world. Though it may sound like good advice to “experience everything as if it were the first time” the simple truth is that we as humans cannot function in this way. We have to know how to act and when, in various situations based on general principals this only becomes neurotic when we don’t realize that a given situation is actually not like an old one and we attempt to apply the same template to the new situation. Nevertheless, in general, generalizations are extremely useful and most of us know how to tweak our generalizations to approach various situations.
Experiential knowledge is subjective knowledge which makes it of little value to others. For example if someone jumps out of a 12- story building and lives to talk about it but data/ research shows that jumping out of a 12- story building will kill you or at least leave you seriously injured -what is more valuable? Though the jumper has experiential knowledge his knowledge is of no value because it is one person’s personal experience it cannot be trusted. Then why is this the case with parenting? Why do so many disdain parenting advice of people who don’t have children?
Their is a saying by Imam Ali, the fourth caliph of Islam that “The truth is not known by men, men are known by the truth” or as my father often says “People are not right or wrong what they say is right or wrong”. So why are so many people willing to take advice from a fellow parent but disdain the advice of non- parents? Is the truth about parenting only given to those with children? The wife of my sheikh (religious teacher) has an excellent lecture series on raising Muslim children. In it she talks about how to raise children that will be religiously observant and consequently good citizens and people in a more general sense.
The lecture is a translation -with her own additives, of a lecture series by her sheikh, a man with a large family of well mannered children. What she teaches is in accordance with Islamic Principals and Prophetic wisdom yet I’ve heard many refuse to take her advice or simply listen to her lectures because she does not herself have children. Knowing what an adherance this is to people taking beneficial knowledge from her she actually begins her series of lessons by saying that many people won’t take her advice becuase she does not have children. Is this the only way her advice on children could be valid? Is it only means by which knowledge is valuable?
A part of the problem is that people think their children are an extension of themselves. That the family is a private entity and people have the right to do with their families as they will as long as they don’t violate the rights of others. But is this right or logical? My Sheikh’s wife says repeatedly “your child does not belong to you”, your child is not your property to do with as you will. They are a trust from God and your raising of them is the raising of future adults. Even a non- religious person can realize that raising a child according to one’s whims and desires is bad for society. If your love for your child causes them to be entitled and lazy adults who do not care about the society or environment, is this a success?
Yet it seems that child rearing techniques should be left to personal discretion, that no one should dare judge the other, and that no non- parent should ever have a word to say. But is it not obvious their are general principals that should guide in the parenting of a child or in the doing of anything valuable? That at the very least, the big picture should not be left up to individual choice?
I use raising children as a prime example in this debate of what actual constitutes expertise and good advice because it is the most obvious and controversial. As a psychology student I could give someone extremely valuable advice on both child rearing and marriage but without being in either of these roles will anyone bother to listen? To be even more extreme, a psychologist can be severely depressed and still be able to work with a client who is severly depressed and successfully treat them. Someone might say -how is this possible if the psychologist can’t even cure themselves? The answer is simple, the psychologist is not dependent on experiential knowledge for the success of their work. They have a set of skills, a broad knowledge base of the illness, and clinical experience -personal experience may be helpful but it is not a crutch.
When people turn away from this kind of knowledge they lose somthing of great value and miss beneficial advice that could have guided them in any given issue. But something is also loss when experiential knowledge is made irrelevant. In a class I took on Motherhood during my first semester at Columbia we discussed the idea being thrown around by one of the professors of having a ‘motherhood degree.’ I immediately cringed, I imagined a white middle class degree laden twenty something year old man giving a class to poor urban black mothers on how to raise children. I was immediately offended. Not becuase someone who got this degree, if it ever comes to pass, would have nothing to offer but because they may believe the kind of knowledge they have to be complete and sufficient enough to be not only the guiding principal of parenting but also the details. This is not the case.
My favorite kind of research is research that uses both words and numbers. Research that gives data and allows the voices within that data to speak.This I believe to be the perfection of knowledge. I believe knowledge about something is more important and primary like knowing God exists and knowing the attributes of God but I also believe that once this knowledge is experienced actually knowing God directly and experientially, that this is the greatest form of knowledge. And this really applys to everything -studying a trade before work in it then gaining intuitive knowledge, listening to good advice then implementing it and tweaking it based on your individual experience. People who -like the great psychologist Melanie Klein who began her clinical work with her own children and later did larger research and became a prominent child psychologist, have the perfection of knowledge. Either type of knowledge on its own is both valuable and limited. Maybe coming to this understanding would allow us to more readily benefit from others instead of deeming one way of knowing as the only way of knowing and the other way of knowing as worthless.
And God knows best.