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What does "Human Experience" even mean?

Year twelve English students have encountered the words “human experience” over a hundred times at this point, whether it be in class discussions or dreaded essay questions. For a lot of students, it’s probably a term that has lost all meaning, and for others, a term that warrants nothing more than an eye roll. It’s understandable that two words so strongly associated with the HSC would receive such a response, but this complacency is at risk of jeopardising students’ marks in a way that need not happen; the question of the “human experience” is actually far more simple than many would believe.

For context, if you’re a student reading this, “Texts and Human Experiences” is the current common module for the HSC - Standard and Advanced alike - meaning that your entire English Paper 1 (and the first paper of your whole HSC) will be focused on it. I considered including the module description in this post, but I figured it would be better to summarise the essence of what this module is asking you, lest you sense “NESA language” afoot and run for the hills.

In essence, this module is asking you to identify which human experiences are happening in the text, how people can relate to them, and why they are important. On a foundational level, that’s it. The quotes, techniques and explanations that you’ve memorised mean nothing if you’re not able to link them to the particular human experience of the text. The key human experiences that you find in the text can be emotions (such as loneliness, happiness, love, fear, envy), experiences that we all share as humans (such as losing a loved one, starting a new chapter, falling in love, feeling overwhelmed) or inherent questions that we all ask (such as “What is the meaning of life?” “Why is there pain in this world?” “Why is the grass always greener on the other side?”) You are being asked to identify the particular human experiences that are specific to your text, and provide evidence that supports the idea that these experiences are present in the text.

The next step, once you’ve identified the key human experiences in the text, is to look for the nuance. This means to dive deeper. What about the character’s particular journey strikes the chord of empathy or relatability in the reader? Why are we drawn to the characters in the novel? I’ll spoil it for you: the answer to this is always going to be along the lines of “Readers can relate to this character because they are experiencing a very real and true part of the shared human experience.” Does the character want to escape a situation of oppression? Well, we can relate, because we’ve all felt trapped by something at some point in our lives. Did the character lose something precious to them? Well, we’ve all lost something important. Does the character feel lonely? Well, we’ve all experienced loneliness. Authors love to take a very core and common element of the shared human experience and amplify it to elicit an immediate and heavy emotional response in the reader. Stephen Daldry knew that we’ve all experienced obstacles in achieving our dreams, so in Billy Elliot, he presented an innocent child whose dream is stifled by his unfortunate life circumstances. Every man and his dog can relate to Billy. It’s your job to work out why.

Next, a step deeper: identify why these particular human experiences are important. That is to say, why does it even matter that we as humans experience these things in the first place? Do they bring us closer together? Do they increase our capacity for empathy? Does suffering help us to lean on one another? It is only through Billy’s isolation that he discovers his true love for dancing at all costs. It is only through his marginalisation that he is forced to rise above the hate, which allows him to emerge stronger. Common human experiences such as pain, loss, happiness, loneliness, peace, etc. are important because they help us to grow. Your job is to identify in which ways the characters in your particular text are growing, and what human experiences lead them there.

A final tip is to look for paradoxes (which, incidentally, is one of your HSC marker’s favourite words). What are some different phenomena about the human experience that seemingly contradict one another? I’ll give you an example: in Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, it is clear that to be human is to desire individual autonomy and independence, right? Yet, in the same novel, it is also clear that to be truly human is to seek relationships; to cling to one another. How does this make sense? Thus is the beauty of the human experience: it is full of mysterious paradoxes.

You may be reading this thinking, “I don’t know how to do any of this!” Well, if the above has overwhelmed you, rest assured that at the end of the day, all you need to ask yourself is, “How is this character relatable? What is their experience revealing to me about being human?” Focus on that before even thinking about your quotes and techniques; remember that quotes are only useful when in support of solid ideas.

The human experience is rife with nuance. And although you may sometimes struggle to understand the context, the vocabulary or the abstract ideas in your text, you have an advantage: you are also human. So you do have something to say about the text. And all of your favourite books: Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, etc etc. are classics precisely because they are riddled with relatable human experiences. So before you go memorising that quote table, put your computer aside and look inside your brain, your heart and your memories. There lies the answer!

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