Charlotte Leslie is a member of the Health Select Committee and MP for Bristol North West.
I was mortified. Of all the critical emails I have received, this one hit hardest. Why? Because I knew immediately that the sender was right and I was wrong.
It was from a driving instructor who had watched the final episode of Inside the Commons – the documentary by Michael Cockerell, the BBC journalist, in which I played a part. (I wrote about it on this site at the start of last month.)
At any rate, the instructor had written to me to tell me that the position of my thumbs on my steering wheel (they were casually gripping the top of the wheel) was not only wrong, but could endanger others’ lives. He repeated something I recognised instantly: ‘Thumbs resting on top of the steering wheel rim, hands at ‘ten to two’, no crossing hands over’.
How had I forgotten something so crucial? My own (wonderfully patient and persistent) driving instructor had even warned me that I would –that the more confident I felt as a driver, the less I would worry about those seemingly small things, as I rushed from A to B. I felt ashamed, and it has been hands at ‘ten to two’, and religious ‘mirror, signal, manoeuvre’ ever since.
That is a downside of doing something for a long time: bad habits can grow and spread like mould in driving, work, relationships, sport – everything. But another driving-related conversation this week made me think that, as a society, we might not value the concept of experience nearly enough.
Every week, I usually hold a local ‘pub politics’ session. They are a good way for people who would not otherwise meet their MP to have an informal chat, gripe, or to ask me questions. One of the questions this week followed the tragic death of those killed by an heavy goods vehicle in Bath: should 19-year-olds be able to drive HGVs?
I confessed I don’t know enough about HGV driving to be able to give a genuinely informed answer, rather than knee-jerk prejudice. But one of my team spoke out, with the benefit of first hand knowledge. He had been an HGV driver for many years, and described the complexities of driving such a vehicle.
From his own experience, he was adamant that a 19 year old could not have had enough time from passing his or her first driving test to gain sufficient road-hours to build up a enough experience to know instinctively what to do when something went wrong. There was all the difference in the world, he said, between being able to pass a test, and having the understanding and driving experience to be able to handle such a beast in all situations.
I would still not count myself sufficiently informed as to be an authority on the subject, but I instinctively trusted this voice of real world experience over what might sound like good theoretical arguments. And it struck me that this spoke to something wider – a broader devaluing of the merits of experience.
We live in a world in which information is generally downloadable. We click, and our phone has ‘learned’ a new App in seconds; our machines gain new abilities and information at the click of a button, and are able to process them as well as they ever will as soon as they are uploaded into the system.
But human brains don’t work like that. Last year, I taught myself to walk on stilts. (Don’t ask: elections can be very stressful.) I was amazed all over again at how the brain can teach itself and the body skills with repetition and no external instruction without one being consciously aware of it. “Practice makes perfect” is as true as it has ever been. Yet we seem to overlook this truth in so much of what we do, and in how we expect humans to learn.
Medics – surgeons in particular – have long raised worrie about the cutting-down of training hours for junior doctors for this very reason, (and I have great concerns over Health Education England’s current proposals to cut down on training time for doctors). Nothing can replace the simple reality of practicing a skill over and over again. We gain knowledge and understanding through repetition in ways that we are not conscious of, that cannot easily be measured. But in a world where everything must be measured, these can become undervalued – but at our peril. However hard we try, we cannot download experience into our brains. We have to do it the long way.
In an era that celebrates youth, (just look at the age of our leading politicians, compared to yesteryear) we see this undervaluing of experience in the work place. Modernity, quickness, and digital ability are all vital, but so is the wisdom and understanding born of experience of the older worker – and it is in a crisis that experience comes to the fore.
The fast-emerging global markets, which are seizing the day and leading the way, such as China and India, ironically do not suffer from this phobia of age. On a ‘Young Leaders” roundtable in China in couple of years ago, we young MPs in our thirties found our counterparts in their mid-fifties. This was China’s idea of youth.
It is during the difficult times that experience comes to the fore. As T.S. Eliot put it: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” As a relatively young MP (though thanks to years of post-university career floundering, not completely inexperienced in other walks of life!), I hope that, in these dangerous times for global security, we will look beyond the gleam of youth and information and split-second headlines, and value the experience and wisdom of those who have seen such times before.