“Learning Experience” focuses on a boy who is about to take an examination to determine whether he will be subject to being drafted into the United States Army. The twenty-two-line poem is written in free verse that conforms to no predetermined rules and follows no particular meter. It is one long, unified stanza. The title of the poem is ironic. The boy, who is sitting in a classroom in Gary, Indiana, is supposed to be “learning” how “to think a little on demand,” but he is bored, and the teacher’s lessons on “dangling participles” are not going to teach him much about life. In the world outside he will undergo a learning experience, certainly, but one that has little to do with “French irregular verbs” and “Jacksonian democracy,” with the material listed on an English or history syllabus. The speaker of the poem is a teacher who has come “out on the train from Chicago” to Gary to teach English grammar.
History forms a backdrop to Marge Piercy’s poem and to the plight of the boy in the Gary classroom. In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson authorized General William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. troops in Vietnam, to commit soldiers to the battlefield. Therefore, at the time of this poem, American soldiers are fighting in Vietnam, and more young men are being drafted into the Army every day. The second crucial historical aspect is that in March, 1951, President Harry Truman had issued an executive order deferring the draft for college students of adequate scholastic standing. There would be no second chance for those who failed the college aptitude test that would permit a student deferment.
In line 11, halfway through the poem, it is revealed that “The time of tomorrow’s draft exam is written on the board.” This fact points to, and explains, the final line of the poem, which says that tomorrow the boy “will try and fail his license to live.” Because the boy has been too bored to learn enough in school, he will fail the exam and ultimately will be drafted into “Today’s Action Army,” qualifying for an education in “death that hurts.”