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Experience - Too Valuable to Dismiss

EXPERIENCE, that accumulation of wisdom garnered through the trials of life – who can put a price on it? Sadly, in our so called progressive society, the price has been marked down as: no value.

Perhaps my interest in this subject stems from my own advancing years, but I don’t think so. I have always had an interest in learning from the experiences of the older generation. As a journalist, I learned early on that you should never stop learning – and who better to teach you than those who have been ‘through the mill’ as we say.

However, my beliefs in this regard are not shared by a lot of Ireland’s decision-makers. For them, the answers lie with youth. Give youth its head, they say, they will get the job done, they have the energy and the education and the drive and the vision. So goes the modern mantra.

Those with experience are pushed aside callously. Their age profile – that’s the ‘in’ phrase – has no place in a ‘progressive’ company. Once you pass 50, they suggest, you should be ready for the pipe and slippers, and a general easement into retirement.

What a misguided, wrong-headed view this is. Without the benefit of their older workers’ experience, our young people simply make mistakes, bluff and lie to cover them up, and find some handy scapegoat to blame. You see it happening all the time – from the Government right down to the ranks of the lowly bar or cafe worker.

It could all be so different, if age was accorded the veneration it has earned, and experience was seen as the valuable commodity it is. The accumulated wisdom of experience should be one of the main building blocks of our society. Instead it is more often the cornerstone rejected.

Two chance encounters recently prompted me to write in this vein. The first occurred in a bar at a golf club. Seated beside me was a man who had served long and honourable years in what are now known as the security forces, but were once plain Gardai.

I quizzed him about his work and the difficult decisions that had to be made when youngsters fell foul of the law. As it turned out, he had, during his career, established a great rapport with young fellows who strayed, and had gone out of his way to help them when he could.

He told me one story about a lad who he had helped and how, late one night, after a tough day at the office, he had wandered into a cafe for a bite to eat. He hadn’t time to order before the proprietor came around from behind the counter and greeted him effusively. It was the boy he had helped all those years ago.

“Instead of a career in Mountjoy, I am now the owner of three of these cafes,” he told the Garda, “and that’s thanks to you.” Needless to say, the ‘bite to eat’ was on the house.

Impressed, I asked if the Garda authorities had recognised his ability to liaise with problem children, and if they had used this ability in any way.

“Oh, they did,” he replied, “I used to go down to Templemore and give talks to the trainees.”

That’s great, I acknowledged, but have they asked you back since you retired? No, was the response, they don’t seem to want to know.

The loss to the justice system in this country of this man’s hard earned wisdom is a scandal. Without the desire to benefit from his input, it’s no wonder the ‘them’ and ‘us’ syndrome flourishes between Gardai and criminals.

A few weeks later I met a woman, who had been a highly rated teacher. Her friend told me that she was regarded as the best in the business. Sadly, she had suffered burn-out, a not uncommon complaint in the teaching profession.

She was now retired, but had regained her health and retained the mental sharpness that had stood to her in the classroom.

Does she ever feel like teaching again, I asked her friend. Oh, she does, I was assured, she would love to do a couple of days a week but her services don’t seem to be required.

What a shame, I thought, all that hard earned experience going to waste. A shame, not only from the point of view of the pupils, but also of the younger teachers who would benefit from her input too.

Tradespeople still use a master and apprentice system to good effect, and Frank Duff installed it as a first principle for the development of the Legion of Mary, but elsewhere it no longer retains its appeal. A whole lot of wisdom is being spurned – and Ireland is the loser.

© Seán Ryan, 2005

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