Learning, Unlearning, Relearning

3 February 2014
11:48 am


T. —

I’ve signed up for a new Coursera class: The History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education. It is awesome so far. The assignment for this week was to look at what we have had to unlearn.

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those  who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.

– Alvin Toffler

The assignment:

What is one thing–a pattern, habit, behavior–you have had to “unlearn” in your life in order to be able to learn something new? Please write a 500-word essay about what it was you had to unlearn, any challenges you encountered, and any successes you experienced. 

My answer:

Perspectives of Knowledge – by M.

The habit or pattern I’ve had to unlearn in my life in order to learn something new is really a perspective of knowledge. Since I was young, I’ve had an aptitude for learning, and I’ve never been able to quench my curiosity for learning something new. I have read as much as possible, and my bookshelves at home are filled with notebooks, class notes, syllabi, old journals – all sources of learning that I’ve compiled over the years. Sounds great, right?

Despite the apparent benefits of this habit, I’ve picked up various limiting perspectives about knowledge along the journey. Unfortunately, one of the first lessons I learned about knowledge is that it is a privilege, and a gift – something to be held in highest esteem. While this may not sound terrible, that definition of knowledge quickly diverged into problematic associations: that I had the gift of knowledge more than other people; that what I knew was something to be protected and defended; that I often had more information than other people, and therefore was mostly right most of the time; that those who didn’t question or read or study as much as I did knew less than what I knew – that somehow, their knowledge and perspectives were lesser or invalid.

The whole process of education bolstered me in these beliefs, these habits, these limiting perspectives, because of the applause of test scores, grades, achievements and goals. Most of my education was very straight-forward and linear, which cemented a very black-and-white, either-or perspective of knowledge and facts. Opinions didn’t hold up against Fact – and I didn’t really give other people the chance to influence or transform my own knowledge.

I’m not entirely sure when the shift happened, but slowly my gaze widened from the very focused and closed-down perspective of learning and knowledge – and what swept in was a new-found humility and patience to listen to what other people knewwhat other people valued, and how other people learn and discover knowledge and information. In the process, Philosophy and Poetry, my two loves, highlighted the worthiness of these new, holistic ways of understanding, knowing, and questioning. Without breaking down, or unlearning my previous perspective of knowledge, the subtleties and subjectivity of these two topics would have been lost to me.

One of the biggest challenges has been learning the difference between confidence and bravado, between scholarship and arrogance. Sometimes it can be hard to discern when a strong defense is necessary to support a position, and when to deconstruct what it is I think I know in order to discover the wealth of perspectives and avenues of information that lie beneath the surface. I’ve gone through different phases of feeling 1) empowered by knowledge, 2) ashamed of seeing knowledge as mine or a privilege, and 3) guilty for being so academic in a world that just wants to relate to me authentically (instead of just rationally).

One of the best successes has been how my interest in knowledge and dedication to learning has formed new relationships in my life, both professional and personal. When I stop claiming knowledge as my own, there is more room to share and explore collaboratively. When I stop competing or pitting myself against others in the name of achievement, there is a wider expanse of available resources, goals, and creativity that can arise. Other successes are more emotional: realizing the depth of thought and inspiration that I have available to me; the realization that perspectives and new ways of understanding are unlimited. I feel more empowered now, through this new lens of learning, than I ever felt from reciting facts or getting 100% on an exam.

My new perspective of knowledge doesn’t undermine any work I have done in the past. In fact, I’ve carried over some positive traits from the older patterns: dedication, focus, concentration, perseverance, logic, and an unabiding love of books. But these new, wider perspectives of knowledge have so many more positive patterns: collaboration, novelty, exploration, creativity, flexibility, humility, and a wider breadth of understanding.


This week’s question: Who is your favorite teacher, and why? Would you say it’s Al for you? I’d love to hear what your answer would be.

I can barely get my eyes off the paper to look at the screen. I have lots of work to do today outside of Coursera, and outside of my own paper, but when I stop to think, I ask myself which work is more important? 

I can’t wait for next month, when I can just scale back everything and simplify down to those important things. It will be the biggest gift.

Good morning,

One thought on “Learning, Unlearning, Relearning

  1. Here’s part of what I wrote in my poetry blog last January:

    Mostly, these days: I am unlearning and relearning. Mostly, these days: there are things I rely on, and people, too. And then there are things that I don’t know, and probably will never know, and that’s scary, but okay.”

    I think unlearning and relearning is important. It’s emptying your cup, yeah?


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