Growth as an Intimate Relationship between Learning and Unlearning

Munir Fasheh, Arab Education Forum <>

A common fear I have in starting with words (for example with unlearning) is that words might become the reference, might become more real than reality as we experience it. My fear is that I might slip back into the habit I acquired in schools and universities and describe reality and my experiences, and interpret them, in a way that would fit the words rather than the other way around. In other words, my fear in starting with words is the tendency of using and applying the words in a mechanical way; i.e., to be used by the words rather than to use them. My guess is that many of the words I use today, and which I feel are full of life, would not be as powerful and meaningful as they are for me today, if I had started with them. If I have to summarise my struggle with the dominant system of knowledge, I would summarise it by saying that it has been a struggle to unlearn having words as my reference and learn to have life as my reference. My starting point has been shifting to my surroundings and experiences and being attentive and contemplative of them. By "walking this path," I came across words that I found appropriate to what I was experiencing, and to which I gave meanings that were in harmony with my experiences, reflections, convictions and circumstances. In other words, meanings grow from an existential soil (daily living, cultural, and social), and get nurtured by it, just like plants and humans grow and get nurtured from the surrounding earth soil. It is hard for me to think of growth with no soil nurturing it. Growth never starts with concepts. They might enhance it at a later stage.

What I expressed above came to my mind as I started writing about learning and unlearning (this is the first time I write about unlearning as a main theme). My mind and imagination, as usual, wandered back to dig into my life and look for instances where the word "unlearning" took place in some way, and try to find appropriate meanings for it. I quickly realized that I had diverse experiences, which naturally gave different meanings to "unlearning." Some meanings reflected uprooting people from the natural soils in which they live, while other meanings re-nurtured their connectedness to that soil. A lot of the unlearning of the first kind is what takes place as children enter schools. Every child enters school with a lot of "knowledge" and understanding, which is anchored in the soil of daily living, which naturally includes the cultural social soil. In school, that "knowledge" and understanding have to be unlearned, ridiculed, and forgotten, and gradually be replaced by "plastic" information and knowledge, in the sense of having no roots in the "soils" in which the child lives. Such knowledge is like plastic flowers, which can be bought ready made and brought into the house and put in a vase, and become instantly part of the decoration in the house. What is worse is that they often replace pots with real soil, real flowers and real smell. Plastic flowers are much easier to acquire and much easier to take care of. Similarly, students in schools "buy" ready knowledge, which becomes instantly part of their decorative knowledge. If we teach, for example, the formula for gravity to students, they can instantly claim that they know it and can start using it! Plastic knowledge is much easier to acquire, use, and be tested on. In this sense, technical knowledge (which usually has no roots in any soil) is much easier to acquire than life-knowledge. To diagnose a child as "depressed," for example, and to prescribe an "appropriate" treatment, is much easier than creating an environment that helps change her/his mood; much easier than creating a happy environment in a home where children grow healthily. The second type of "knowledge" is something that cannot be learned from textbooks and professionals, but through living, loving, caring, and interacting with wise people.

A main perception, which I acquired at a young age (probably like others who have gone through schools and universities), is that we need knowledge and science in order to replace the "wrong" conceptions we have about the world. This may partially be true, but to leave out "knowledge" that children acquire through living (and which they come to school with) is either a sign of ignorance or lack of innocence. I donít remember one instance where other systems of knowing (other than the one in official curricula, regardless as to whether they are decided by governments or professionals) were considered legitimate or even discussed, nor do I remember that what I came to school with was ever mentioned and considered part of knowledge or the curriculum. Professionals and officials decide the curriculum; all what students have to do is to learn what is in it, and then prove that they learned it through passing tests that are mainly verbal. No serious questions concerning the curriculum are allowed, anywhere, if they touch deeper issues, such as "Doesnít having a curriculum hinder learning at a deeper level? Doesnít it detach children from life? How can we justify the same content and same tests to students who are so different?" and so on and so forth. The fact that real learning takes place through interactions, experimentations, articulations, and discussions with life and with real people is usually left out. In their place, ready and polished answers, techniques, and theories are presented as the main acceptable knowledge.

The most striking experience in my life that combined learning and unlearning in an intimate and healthy way is one that I never get tired of mentioning and describing (because it never ceases to be inspiring for me) is the "discovery" of my illiterate motherís math and knowledge. She continues to be an invincible treasure for me every time I find myself in a situation where I need to look at things from a radically different worldview. It is a fascinating story about how learning and unlearning were intertwined as integral parts of my growth and understanding. Since then, I have been busy learning in a way that included unlearning much of what I have learned in schools and universities. I have been busy, for example, healing myself from (i.e. unlearning) the assumption that thinking is superior or higher than living or doing. At the same time, I have been learning how to be attentive to my surroundings and faithful to my experiences and inner voice, and how to use words rather than be used by them. These became main guiding principles for me in the learning-unlearning process. It is very hard for me today to think of a situation where I would learn something meaningful without unlearning being part of it, or of a situation where I am unlearning something without learning being part of it. In this sense, learning and unlearning are as intimate as the growth and death of cells in a living body. It is hard to think of a healthy body that grows without cells forming and cells dying at the same time. Similarly with growth in understanding: it embodies both learning and unlearning.

The Ďdiscoveryí of my motherís knowledge Ďforcedí me to unlearn meanings that I acquired for words such as math, knowledge, literate, and illiterate, and to acquire new meanings concerning them. Unlearning ready meanings and learning new meanings represent, for me, a most crucial factor in growing. Regaining the importance, ability and habit of independent investigation of meanings of words that I hear, read and use has become increasingly a central theme in my thinking and work, and in my living in general. I say "regaining" because it has been part of the culture and civilization I was nurtured by, a part that is completely ignored by educational systems in the region. One of the fundamental and most inspiring ideas of the Islamic culture is al-ijtihad, which is the right and duty of every Muslim to put an effort in understanding the Quran. That is, meanings are never final and no person has absolute authority in terms of meanings. In my teaching and work, I have tried to embody this principle in all areas of growth and understanding. This independent investigation of meaning naturally embodies unlearning and learning as necessary ingredients in any healthy growth: unlearning ready meanings and terms, which we acquire through education, mass media, and other institutions, and learning (actually constructing) new meanings that are rooted in, and spring out from experiences, convictions, culture, and surroundings.

In addition to helping a person or a community grow, investigating and constructing meaning is most crucial to freedom, creativity, and being truthful as well as in building knowledge and understanding. In a healthy mind, the person (whether aware of it or not) is constantly forming and creating new words, new expressions, and new meanings and constantly seeing new relationships among ideas and meanings. It is a healthy mind that feels free and confident to discard dominant terms, even if experts and professionals use them (but do not make sense to the person), and feels free to radically change meanings to be more in harmony with the oneís experiences, convictions and realities. An education that does not leave room for people to independently investigate meanings is a questionable enterprise.

The realization of my "illiterate" motherís knowledge helped me unlearn several dominant assumptions and myths and, at the same time, helped me learn new "myths" and convictions. To describe my mother as illiterate and me as literate, in some absolute sense, reflects a narrow and distorted view of the real world and of reality. [It is like describing a person who has no car as "car-less," forgetting or ignoring that s/he has legs, and focusing instead on one way of moving as being superior.] I unlearned the myth that a literate person is better than an illiterate person, that an illiterate person is not a full human being, that s/he is ignorant, that by becoming literate a person would be magically transformed and poverty and ignorance would be wiped out, that a literate person is freer than an illiterate person, and so on. On the other hand, it helped me formulate a conviction that became central in my thinking and work: that every person is a source of meaning, knowledge and understanding, and every person is logical. Becoming aware of my motherís ways of living and knowing helped me unlearn hypocrisies that I learned in schools and universities (such as saying what teachers and professors expected me to say in order to pass their tests), and helped me learn again what I practiced as a child: to say what I mean and mean what I say (a statement that is alien to institutional logic and to career-oriented professionals). It took me several years before I was able to admit my new convictions publicly. I was simply risking my career, prestige and reputation.

I started with the idea that a big problem in being literate is substituting words for life, and considering concepts more real than reality. I struggled a lot to unlearn that concepts are more real than reality, to free myself from the hegemony and tyranny of words, from the meanings and connotations that were propagated with the words, often by design, since the values that govern the world today are winning and control. I unlearned that science and technology are neutral, objective and basically good. The catastrophes that the world seem to be marching fast towards are created mainly by literate people, fully armed with science and technology, such as polluting air, land and ocean; controlling minds; and creating tools of total destruction. Nothing, for example, has done as much irreversible harm, in terms of polluting the human body and nature, as the science of chemistry during the past 100 years!

I referred in this reflection to two types of unlearning: one that ignores what people learn from life (like what happens to children as they enter schools), and another that is related to healthy and natural growth (as opposed to cancerous growth). I find the word "growth" to be very appropriate in describing the intimate relationship between learning and unlearning. In the life of a community as in the life of a person, where there is no growth there is decay. Growth does not refer to unfolding knowledge that is already there. New understanding does not mean adding, or even discovering, something that one was not aware of before. Growth and understanding refer to new consciousness of knowledge itself, to new perception of self, to new realization that one is a co-author of meaning and a co-partner, co-creator and co-builder of life and reality. Growth and understanding refer to constant newness, not in the sense of bringing something ready from outside, but of inventing constantly new words, new meanings, new perceptions, new relationships, and new consciousness. This implies freedom and dynamism at a level different from what they usually refer to. It often requires breaking the idols and boundaries that are set by professionals, institutions, and conventional wisdom. It is a manifestation of the integrity of creation.