What If Unlearning Is More Than That?

Rick Smyre <rlsmyre@aol.com>

"In the psychological process of understanding why organisations or individuals behave as they do — blame is never appropriate understanding always is." - Rick Smyre/Robert Stott

"The word ‘dialogue’ I understand in this sense, as an effort at creating my identity through interactions and relations with different people. This leaves me space to deliberate about those aspects of identity that I share with other citizens because identity is also constituted by collective dialogues." - Isaac Ochien’g

"In the future, the definition of illiteracy will not be the inability to read, it will be the inability to learn, unlearn and relearn." - Alvin Toffler

In the first half of the 19th Century, Dugald Stewart of Edinburgh had the reputation of a scholar with such a broad range of interests that he could synthesize and connect bits and pieces of knowledge that apparently had no relation. It was a combination of deep commitment to truth and a desire to improve humanity’s station in life that he and others in Scotland took the ideas of previous thinkers and leaders of the 18th century to bring together what became known as the "Scottish Philosophy."

As is true with every age, ideas and values both fit and form the context of any society… and provide positive and negative examples of their use. As a result of the intersection of a Presbyterian strict morality, an overall level of literacy never before attained, and the introduction of radical ideas which introduced the dignity of the individual, old ways of life were left behind as new concepts were birthed and new patterns of life emerged from the mist of uncertainty.

Over two hundred years, these ideas led to new fundamental structures, principles and skills as the ways of a thousand years had to be unlearned and those of an Industrial Age, formed through experiment, heartache and commitment for a better material life of progress for all.

As is true with all historical epochs, there comes a time when past truths are viewed through the prism of illusion, and we search for new integrations… new ways of looking at the world… new ways of finding meaning… new ways of relating to each other.

In the spirit of Dugald Stewart and many Eastern philosophers whose ideas I have never had the pleasure of meeting, it seems to me that we live in a time crying for a new type of integration… one that searches for a new type of dynamic unity… and one that will require a new form of "unlearning."

In the past, our Western concept of learning has been to shift from one base of content to another, and, in so doing, required questions that divided us and our knowledge from each other. Is capitalism or socialism the right answer? Is it individuality or community that we need? What is the one right answer for this issue?

Although effectively at a kindergarten level, my limited understanding of Eastern thinking has begun to open the door to an inherent wholeness not found in Western focus. As I seek to understand the issues and concerns of a world perched dangerously on a slippery slope, I sense the need to reflect more deeply about diverse values and opinions that will help me shift my context of understanding for the future, and not blame the past… leading to both principles and actions that will serve our common humanity in a diverse world of constant change.

My own journey as a Southern white male in the US has, like all humans who are alive, led me on different paths and new directions based on multiple intersections of experience and growing curiosity. Whether as a son of wonderful, caring parents; husband and father of people I hold most dear; business executive in the textile industry; or futurist concerned with community transformation... I have learned many lessons, some obvious and easy, most hard and understood only as life passed.

Of the many lessons I have learned, those that helped me become open to new ideas that challenged my prior beliefs have been the most painful, yet the most important to my continued growth as a person and spiritual being. Slowly, I have learned to look for connections where there seemed to be none. Hesitatingly, I offer opinions for consideration, for I have left the ego of my truth behind.

As I read several of the stories, I thought of Dugald Stewart for some reason, and the need for a new integration of ideas that will be appropriate for a world so different from that of the 18th and 19th century. As my thoughts wandered to Alvin Toffler’s 21st century concept of illiteracy, unlearning itself becomes more than a shift to the next best answer.

When I reread Isaac Ochien’g’s pearl on identity through dialogue, I thought to myself, identity may no longer be based on groups and standards only, but also in the way we search for value from each other. In so doing, we will be able to interact in generative exploration and not feel compelled to teach each other our individual ideologies. And when I received an email in my own dialogue with Robert Stott (an Englishman), I was struck by the fact that he had identified understanding as a replacement for blame as a principle of future analysis.

Fifteen years ago, I would have seen no connection among these three ideas. Yet, with a new openness based on unlearning old ways of thinking, I came to a new "aha moment," that, for the moment, seems to be an emerging principle that may be integrated into our Communities of the Future <www.communitiesofthefuture.org> work.

The new integration of thoughts is this:

* That we will need a new concept and definition of integration of thought that itself looks for the present and future value of what is said/presented. In this way, truth continues to emerge and is never stagnant.

* That "and/both" thinking will replace "either/or" approaches to allow us to be connective and seek wholeness and interdependency. In this way, we will see unity defined in different ways as diverse societies in our world evolve.

* That the concept of unlearning itself will need to be unlearned as we struggle to form a concept of learning that considers what is important within a constantly shifting context… always looking for new connections that will align and provide understanding based on values that support and sustain community, physical environment, and human meaning in constantly changing societies. In this way we will not be trapped by the past, unconsciously preventing new connections.

My thanks to Shikshantar, people such as Robert Stott with whom I connect on the Internet, and the stored knowledge from past learning (Toffler) that has led me to new possibilities. At sixty, my journey of learning continues to open new doors and new ways of thinking about the future…as long as I unlearn effectively and see new connections at the same time.

And one last thought. As I work to transform my own thinking in appropriate ways through generative dialogue with those different from myself, I have a better understanding of what is required to unlearn effectively. As I move toward the evening shade of my life, I have come to believe that there are both important internal and external conditions that are needed for effective unlearning and new "connective" learning to occur simultaneously. Of great importance is the capacity to develop humbleness of mind and heart… to search honestly in the opinions of others for kernels of truth without believing that any one person or idea has all truth… and to look for connections by listening to find value in what someone else is saying.

Another key idea, in my opinion, is to read extensively and integrate knowledge and emotions in a search for balance and wholeness… often in a new paradigm of thought… always believing there are better ideas to be found in the future because one honors the past in appropriate ways… if I fail to search for such a balance I will only be open to ideas that reinforce what I already believe and blindly accept the new because it is.

Finally, externally, I look for times of reflection face to face or on the Web with those who are capable of generative dialogue and who help to create a safe haven for new ideas. In my youth, I believed in my truth alone, and didn’t know that, at best, I could only uncover pieces of truth. As I have grown older, I have lost the intensity of belief without losing the intensity of purpose… and have come to realize that experiences with others who are interested in more than their own opinions are important to my own unlearning. I, in turn, can help others unlearn in the same way… and, together, we can spin a new web aligned with the times in which we live. With all the tensions of the world, it is a wonderful time to be alive. Never before have different individuals and cultures had such a opportunity to create conditions and capacities for unlearning what should be discarded while retaining the best of human experience in a new dance of discovery and creation as we build, together, the next spiral of human understanding and social structure. I only wish I had the energy of youth now that I am finally gaining perspective… and an understanding that appropriate unlearning allows me to shed the skin of that which I once thought would be the only way to be. May we be always blessed with such interesting times.