Ideas and Processes of Unlearning

Susanne Schnuttgen <s.schnuttgen@unesco.org>

Let me start by expressing my appreciation and thanks to the authors for the openness to share their stories and the honesty with which they presented them. They are interesting and inspiring, written from the perspective of resisting the mainstream. These are testimonies of people from middle class backgrounds and varying cultural contexts who are searching for a meaningful life. They do not take anything for granted, but constantly question and demystify the dominant social, political, economic and cultural processes and systems. Their resistance focuses on nothing less, but the dominant Western model of modernity and development, more specifically on notions such as the following:

- The belief in the superiority of the rational

- The focus on the individual

- Different forms of discrimination, including racism

- The notion of success as primarily material success

- The belief in the possibility of unlimited progress

- Standardised education

- The dominance of Western culture and lifestyle

- The categorisation of people according to questionable criteria

They discover the liberating power of making their own choices in life, even if it involves resisting expectations from their family, peers, teachers, work places or society at large. They gain enormous strength from joining and creating new communities such as the Geeks, the Pioneers of Change, the Muslim community, Shikshantar, organic farms or a fulfilled family life. All of them wish to make a difference, believe that a different world is possible and reorient their lives accordingly. Their life projects are quite ambitious, and reading some of the stories, words like "saints" and "heroes" come to mind.

Interestingly most of them start off by questioning if their stories can be truly considered resistance stories. They do not seem to have thought about their lives in those terms before, but agree to engage in re-writing their stories from a resistance perspective. In doing so they give new meaning to the term "resistance stories", encouraging people to search for moments of resistance in their lives and see them as part of larger movement.

· "I’m not really sure if this is a tale of resistance or one of persistence. I can’t claim to have done much to resist the western development model …"

· "Me? Resistance? What resistance? I did think about it though and discovered how amazing it was when we do look back on our lives, we are able to find numerous stories of personal resistance."

· My story "tries to explain how I became aware that while all is not well with the world, there are creative moments of clarity, and of how I have started becoming more aware of my own critical consciousness…"

What gives the protagonists of these stories the strength and energy to chose alternative paths in life? While the reflection on unlearning intends to shed some light on this question, we will never fully know. Looking at the stories, we realise that they tell more about the strengths of the authors than their weaknesses, more about their convictions than their doubts, more about them as individuals than the families they come from. Certain subjects, which are often key in the process of personal growth, such as falling in love or analysing family dynamics, do not get much attention in the majority of the stories. It is striking for example that we find hardly any evidence of questioning the parents, even though they are part of the system which the story tellers are trying to "unmask."

Stories of Unlearning?

How far then do these stories represent, as Shikshantar suggests, experiences of unlearning?

The notion of "unlearning" in the sense of "liberating oneself from" seems to appear as part of a larger pattern:

Unmasking reality and Choosing/creating alternatives

personal compliance (i.e. Pioneers of Change; practicing

(i.e. disillusionment with modernity) Muslim; life as a Geek; Shikshantar)


 

"Unlearning" practices/beliefs Re-discovering values

(i.e. being a good student; conforming (i.e. faith in oneself; importance of

to mainstream standards) community; tradition(s))

Unmasking Reality and Personal Compliance

Every storyteller mentions experiences, which triggered his/her awareness that something is wrong with the world and the way they used to see things. In most cases these are traumatising confrontations with racism, colonial mentalities, environmental pollution, violence and self-destruction or rigid school and university systems. They all go through a feeling of disillusionment, despite the fact that by mainstream standards they were doing well and belonged to the group of the so-called winners of the system. However, by analysing and "unmasking" reality, they realise how their lives are conditioned by the values and practices of the Western model of modernity and development and how the themselves are accomplices in reproducing a system that in their analysis is mainly destructive, dehumanising and non-creative.

"Unlearning" Practices/Beliefs

In order to liberate themselves from the values and practices of the dominant modern system, with which they are so closely intertwined, they decide to "break" with their habits and practices. They resist the societal pressure of having to succeed according to mainstream standards and develop a new mind-set in order to make alternative choices, which follow criteria that are defined by them. The process of unlearning includes elements of both reflection and action. At times it seems like a purification process to get rid of all the bad energy of the dominant system. In concrete terms, unlearning takes various forms: one stops taking a tranquillising medication, the other leaves a prestigious school, and a third a well-paid job.

Re-discovering Values

Along with the unlearning process the protagonists re-discover alternative values and lifestyles. These are the positive experiences, which empower them to change their lives. For some it is a re-discovery of "traditional" values such as family, for some it is Islam, for others the recognition of diversity. All of them rediscover faith in themselves, which enables them to listen to their intuition and beliefs. All of them find community contexts that provide them the space they need to continue their process of learning and "unlearning" in search for an alternative life.

Choosing / Creating Alternatives

Are they successful in their efforts to unlearn and to resist? I suppose this is a very personal question and can best be answered by the people concerned. However, it is striking that all of them reorient their lives and join ambitious projects for change. Their lifestyles and choices reflect a desire and an effort to do well, something they used to be expected to do from early on, even if this time it is not according to mainstream standards. While they have tried to unlearn to be part of a modern elite, they seem to be becoming part of a new elite – and quite comfortably so – an elite for change, the avant-garde in a struggle for a better world.

Questioning the Concept of "Unlearning"

The term "unlearning" at first glance triggers resistance in many peoples’ minds, because it is associated with negative notions such as ruptures or breaking with the past. It is not evident to see the constructive potential in a process of "unlearning." However, the stories have illustrated that this positive potential is the key aspect, since "unlearning" is understood as liberating oneself from such conditioned behaviour, which prevents us from changing our lives and promoting positive change. "Unlearning" is like unlocking the door, which has to be opened in order to enter new ground. I agree with Shikshantar that in this context the two terms "unlearning" and "resistance" are inextricably linked.

However, how able are human beings to liberate themselves from values and behaviours that they acquired in the past, how able are we to "unlearn"? When do we know that our "unlearning" has been successful? It would be interesting to look at stories where people did not succeed in the efforts to "unlearn" and discuss why.

With regard to the stories presented, it would be interesting to deepen the reflection on the role of the family, especially the parents, who in some cases believed in the dominant system and the fruits it would bear for their children. The parents could write about how they see the resistance of their children and thereby possibly contribute to deeper understanding of the "unlearning" and resistance processes.