Personal Journeys, Testimony and Unlearning

Ron Burnett <>

My eyes feel the deep peace of this sky, and there stirs through me what a tree feels when it holds out its leaves like cups to be filled with sunshine.

A thought rises in my mind, like the warm breath from grass in the sun; it mingles with gurgle of lapping water and the sigh of weary wind in village lanes - the thought that I have lived along with the whole life of this world and have given to it my own love and sorrows.

- Rabindranath Tagore, "The Fugitive and Others"

All of the various stories of unlearning that are a part of this collection are significant and important revelations of the personal journeys of the authors. They are part of an important tradition of testimonials ó ways of testifying to life experiences and to the important role that memory plays in telling us who we are and to what degree our own biographies are also stories of the social and historical context of which we are a part. Humans live with the hubris that their moment in history is always more important than any other. This prideful sense of importance has led many cultures into war and has also destroyed relationships among peoples, cultures and nations. In that sense, unlearning is about deconstruction and reconstruction, about the need and the desire to look back in order to find new ways of acting upon the world.

To testify to this need, is to examine what it means to learn not only about the present but also about the past. Yet, to varying degrees both the past and the present are not as accessible to consciousness as we would presume or even desire. What motivates me to make choices? to choose among value systems, moments in time and thoughts and fantasies that take me off in so many different directions? Part of the problem, but it is also an intense irony, is that we presume that conscious thought allows us access to the complexities of who we are and what we have become.

Yet, a testimonial reveals in process and discourse, how little we know and how much work it is to gain a deeper understanding of what motivates us. The paradox is that the process of "testifying" about oneself transforms language and acts of speaking and writing into what Shoshana Felman (1992) has described as a "discursive practice." Effectively, this is an open-ended activity that is more performative than it is conclusive and where the act of engaging in the telling is as important as the words that come out.

This is of central importance to how and why we learn. Most formal education constrains and restrains this extraordinary desire and capacity that humans have to tell their stories in order to understand themselves and the societies of which they are a part. How can teachers value the personal stories of their students when learning is supposed to be "about" something? Each individual of whatever age comes to the learning process with a story to tell, but schools make it very difficult for those stories to be respected let alone included in the curriculum. For all of the authors, learning within formal settings has to a certain degree been a profound failure. For many, learning in the family and through family stories and history has been a central part of a complex dynamic of personal revelation and historyís impact. A constant theme through the stories is the extraordinary power of self-discovery. "There are many things I wish to learn more deeply about. For example, the possibilities of nurturing diverse forms of learning as a way of creating visions of new societies, rejuvenating confidence in ourselves and re-weaving the hidden threads of partnership and co-operation. How do we break through todayís prevalent notions of individualism, competition and rivalry? How do we instead support relationships and organic processes of personal and community growth?" (Isaac Ochieníg) Or, as Mako Hill suggests:

Iím an idealist: I donít like these unanswered or unanswerable questions; I donít like these ambiguous answers. But I draw some comfort from the fact that Iím unwilling to let myself be comfortable.

This state of ambiguity, of constant examination and reexamination, reaffirms my belief that unlearning is not a destination but a process: an exceedingly painful and personal one. Upon reflection, not only does my story fail to imply prescriptive advice I can offer others, it fails to provide me with explicit instruction for living my own life. My successes, my failures, my greatest mistakes and my greatest victories are not a model to emulate or avoid. For me, they are a source of inspiration and hope, a nudge toward the type of critical perspective I find so important. Iím sharing this story in the hope that someone else might be willing to gain similar inspiration.

"Unlearning is not a destination but a process." These stories are a victory for what it means to understand process. It is like Tagoreís wonderful poem "The Fugitive and Others," where Tagore recognizes the sheer simplicity of life and the ways in which we give meaning to our brief moment on this earth.

I have been an educator for over thirty years, and I feel that I am still struggling with what it means to learn. I am also still trying to understand the history I have lived through and am living through. From time to time, I glimpse reason and rationality and can map out a set of choices. For the most part, as with some of the writers I have mentioned, the struggle is with understanding, knowledge, information and self-awareness. I learn and unlearn. There are days when I can listen to my own words and recognize my own history and there are other days when my words are as strange to me as they must be to the listeners with whom I am engaged. This ebb and flow is at the root of learning - conscious and unconscious, rational and irrational, visionary and myopic, but never conclusive which is why the struggle to have an impact on the world is as important as efforts to change it. If unlearning leads to more social action that is aware and not constrained by the simplicity of ideology or religion, then learning will become the expansive, unpredictable and beautiful process that we need to live rich and effective lives. In all of these wonderful essays that central thematic gives substance to the idea that change is possible through self-awareness, self-criticism and the capacity to imagine the future.


Felman, Shoshana and Dori Laub. 1992. Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History. New York: Routledge.