What Did You Learn at the Meta-Level?

Qualifying questions with "at the meta-level" means that the answer should be quite general in its implications.

You might ask me after I returned from Switzerland the other week, "What did you learn at the meta-level?"

A wrong answer is: "Zurich is a pretty city."

A possible answer is: "National pride is unaffected by the health of the economy." Or: "56 percent of the value of a trip is in the memories, not the actual travel."

Asking people what they learned from an experience is always illuminating. It tests how reflective they are (do they even ask themselves this question?), whether they are able to abstract general lessons from a specific experience (that is, answer at the meta-level), and whether they can separate out and discount the lessons rooted in unique circumstances (the lessons not generalizable).

(Hat tip Tyler Cowen, in an email, for this insight and the travel example above.)

4 comments on “What Did You Learn at the Meta-Level?
  • Ben,

    This is actually not correct. What you are describing is simply generalization or abstraction. Appropriate answers to “what did you learn at the meta-level” are necessarily about *learning*, i.e., “what did you learn about learning?” A possible answer would be “It is not so easy to learn a language like Swiss-German.” The “meta” prefix involves a kind of recursion.

    Interestingly, according to the Wikipedia page something like your suggested usage was more common over a century ago, although there was always still some flavor of self-reference albeit weaker (e.g., metaphysics, which is simply more general than physics, but is also a sort of science about science, and yes, I know that Aristotle just meant “after physics.”) However, use of the term in the 20th century has been fairly definitive in being “an X about X.”

    I wouldn’t object but we already have plenty of terms to describe what you are saying. The way to ask the question you’re asking is “What did you learn in general?” or “What broad lessons did you learn?” Using “meta-level” is an attempt to add pretension and sophistication, and amusingly enough, demonstrating ignorance.

  • Not sure what you mean by meta. A more correct answer, as the above commenter pointed out, would be:

    “Well I learned that my learning facilities are improved when I’m traveling in a foreign country.”


  • All points well taken.

    You propose, “What did you learn in general?” or “What broad lessons did you learn?”

    I like these but still don’t know if they evoke the kind of answers that are desirable.

    Perhaps the only way to get beyond the bullshit “Zurich is a pretty city” type answers is explicitly say as much…

  • I don’t think that’s a bullshit answer – it’s just not one that you’re interested in. Sometimes we live in our heads too much and forget that the purely experiential is also important.

    Some people are naturally inclined to focus on the experiential. If they answer in the concrete (“pretty city”), I think you can ask them whether they “observed any interesting patterns” or “learned any general lessons.” If they don’t have an answer, then they probably didn’t – they just experienced it.

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