Sunday, April 2, 2017

Today's MOZEN: No Substitute for Experience

F LoBuono

In the Academy Award winning film, Platoon (1983), one of the main characters is Sgt. Elias, played brilliantly by actor Willem Defoe. Elias, in a sense, is the conscious of the platoon, fighting for survival in the dense jungle warfare of Vietnam. He is a fierce and accomplished warrior but, at the same time, never loses his compassion. This is in direct conflict with the more brutal approach of the platoon's leader, Staff Sgt. Barnes, played with chilling effectiveness by Tom Berenger.

As is noted in the film and supported by statistics, most casualties in that war occurred within the first few weeks a soldier spent "in country", when raw troops were first exposed to combat. This, of course, makes sense: inexperienced soldiers make rookie mistakes that are often fatal. This fact was complicated by the attitude of the more seasoned soldiers who made little effort to share their own experiences with the younger ones. In a way, they were isolating themselves emotionally from the new recruits whom they felt were mostly doomed anyway.

Elias confronts Barnes, charging that if they made just a little effort to share their experience about survival in the jungle with the new men, more of them would live past the first few weeks in the bush. Both of them had survived long enough to know all the tricks of the trade - not just the ones taught in the Army field manual and basic training. Both knew that only the knowledge that comes from practical experience would help them to survive. There is a wonderful scene from the film where Elias puts his theory into practice with a new arrival, Chris, played most capably by Charlie Sheen. After a grueling hike through the dense jungle, Elias notices that Chris is exhausted from hauling all of his gear through the bush. He goes to Chris and asks to see what he has in his backpack. Elias, handling each item one at a time, distinguishes what is essential and what is not. What is not necessary is discarded, lightening Chris' load and, therefore, burden, considerably. This, of course, could prove crucial in a firefight. Without the benefit of Elias' intervention, Chris would simply continue to struggle, attempting to find his own way through the fog of war.

One of my father's favorite slogans was, "there's no substitute for experience". He repeated it constantly. In fact, he lived by it. I always wondered if it was cemented into his psyche during his time as a combat engineer in WWII (he survived 2 years of heavy fighting). Wherever it came from, it was burned into my own ethos. And, I use it in my own career as a teacher.

I am not "formally" trained as a journalist. I was a microbiology major in college with dreams of attending medical school. When that didn't work out, I went searching for a new career and found it working in television. I started on the ground floor and worked my way up. In a career that has now spanned nearly 35 years, I have experienced virtually every aspect of TV News and production: from assistant to manager, from studio to field, there a few aspects of TV journalism that I have not been exposed to. And, THAT is what I share with my students. Just as Sgt. Elias prioritized the essentials from Chris' backpack, I do the same for my students. I use my extensive, PRACTICAL experience to inform them of what is important to know and what is not. I use traditional texts and computer websites for the basics but, just like Elias, what I have actually SEEN and DONE  determines what is necessary to know and what can be "discarded".

Teaching - and, LEARNING - can be accomplished in many ways. But, in the end, the best way, in my opinion, is the use of personal, practical experience. There is NO substitute - indeed.

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