The Spiral of Learning to Unlearn, or the Wider the Horizon…

Bettina Bochynek <b.bochynek@unesco.org>

"When I think back on all the crap I learned in High School, it’s a wonder I can think at all. And though my lack of education hasn’t hurt me none, I can read the writing on the wall..." - Paul Simon, "Kodachrome", 1973

When I started to get immersed in the stories of unlearning collected for this book and began my habitual process of dialogue between what I was reading and the thoughts and reactions entering my mind, it appeared to me that the course of unlearning is a cyclic one. From the various texts, I picked up words and expressions completely disconnected that struck me spontaneously as having a particular meaning for a deeper understanding of the process termed unlearning. I then put them on a piece of paper, and upon looking at them for a few moments, a scheme became visible into which they all easily seemed to belong. This scheme to me looked like a cycle: it included a starting point, a process of specific exercises or activities, and led to certain results – of which most (if not all) seemed to lead back to or be the same as the starting point.

My scheme – based on the words used by the authors of the stories – goes like this:

At the starting point in the process of unlearning, there is pain. It has many different forms, including confusion, pressure, disgust, disaffection, and oppressive framework(s). In my own words, I would call it a feeling of unease, of suffering and of not belonging. The second main element I gathered through the stories and allocated to the starting point is questioning. It begins with a heightened awareness of something being unjust (or wrong), with an awakening, and of course resistance. The authors give expression of their wondering and of the desperate need to interrogate, of the urge to further deepen one’s understanding, but also of the willingness to look beyond the surface and to challenge and confront. The third group of words I found in the stories and added as an element for the starting point is a certain mindset needed to undertake the journey of unlearning: courage, confidence, openness to novel ideas, and sensitivity.

Unlearning is a process and not a destination, one of the authors wrote. Some of the words I marked as critical while reading seemed to me to belong to key exercises and activities during this process of unlearning: not only to question, but to put into question what has been taken for granted for a long time. The stories give an ample account of contesting one’s environment: myths, dominant representations, linear narratives, authorities. But the process is also challenging in itself and requires some strength: persistence is such a necessary ingredient for some, while the journey becomes irresistible for others. The one expression I stumbled over as most vividly conveying the essence of the process was: an active search for deprogramming.

So what did I pick as resulting from that process? I collected various terms that play at different levels around the issue of emancipation and modified viewpoints, and a certain peace of mind, such as new lenses, a perception of different realities, a more equilibrated and integrated life. Other accomplishments include the abilities to give meaning and to re-contextualize. Finally, empowerment – of course! – is mentioned as the outcome of the process of unlearning. However, when looking at words collected from the texts, I found that the results of the process also include more courage, confidence, openness to novel ideas, and sensitivity – the mindset needed at the starting point!

Feeling an urge to assort the same attitudes at the starting point and at the culminating stage of the process, I thus concluded that unlearning is a cycle. I believe in and love the idea of cycles that close! However, after a bit of more reflection and distance from the reading, I realized that I was mistaken with my idea of a closing cycle in this very matter: the journey of unlearning never brings us back to the same point, and it never comes to a close.

Maybe my idea of this journey can be better visualized by using the picture of a spiral. I believe that there is, indeed, a cyclic element in unlearning: the courage and desire to doubt and explore what has created the feeling of unease, followed by a movement of healing along the way which gives space to renewed clarity and wholeness – and more courage and desire to explore even further. Once having undergone the process of unlearning and having acquired more openness and confidence in the course of it, we cannot NOT continue to be sensitive to unjust frameworks or incomplete truths or false authorities, and to question them, to challenge them, and to try to find enlarged perspectives.

That is where I see the cyclic element in unlearning, yet the point of return is not the same. Every time we conclude a cycle of unlearning, we "arrive" at different points because our sensitivity, confidence, openness and critical eye have gotten stronger, and we embark from different starting points again.

Coming back to the stories collected in this book, I would place a critical remark on the concept of unlearning as expressed in the stories precisely around this issue. With all the respect for and understanding of the background and life stories of the authors, sharing so many personal and intimate experiences, my impression is that they see their journey of unlearning having come to an end with the discovery of the destructive forces and rejection of "Western" and "modern" paradigms and respective development and education models. Much as I understand the reasons for and sympathize with this position, I also believe that the critical and self-critical view on reality, which is at the heart of unlearning, cannot stop at a certain point – although this can be painful again. I am also far from trying to defend any of the destructive, cynical and exploitative mechanisms of Western capitalism and development approaches – which are much challenged and disputed also within the so-called West, and to which pathways of resistance and alternatives have evolved as a part of Western culture/tradition.

But I sincerely believe that unlearning, understood as deprogramming, leads us to no longer accepting anything as given. Everything is somewhat put into question, and everything is critically examined – not for the sake of rejection per se and not to lose ground, but to look behind any attempt to and any form of control, manipulation and oppression at whatever level and environment, and to assume a more differentiated, nuanced and wider perspective.

Hence I would like to conclude my comments with how, after all, I am feeling about the broader issue of learning, including the concept of unlearning which I conceive as a natural part of the overall journey of learning. I see learning as a process of widening one’s horizon. This can be an enlargement of the perspective, or simply a shift of it. In this sense, learning is not linear or accumulative, not positive or negative, not exclusive or confined. Every learning experience is shedding new or different light and yielding a view on life that is a bit more complete and integrated and helps to see more aspects and different facets of reality. In the end, it is through the shifting of perspective that elements within the overall picture acquire and change their meaning for us – or, respectively, the meaning we attach to them.