Learning in the 21st century is unlearning

I can see that books are becoming retro. People don’t have stacks of them in their home anymore. And lately I’m seeing books as artifacts, like a globe that shows Africa smaller than the US. But I am convinced that it’s important for me to leave books laying around because I see, in hindsight, that my parents had a lot of influence on me based on the books they had around the house.

For example, I spent a lot of time reading the encyclopedia. But our edition was one of the last made by Britannica, and it was so complex, with an index of abstracts and then a reference to a page of an article in another volume that seemed, often, unrelated, so that actually, I was reading a print version of the Internet, and, no surprise, it got cumbersome very fast. So I turned to the shelf of Agatha Christie mysteries and wished I had found those before I blew through the shelf of Nancy Drews at the library.

Next to Agatha Christie, was Johnny Got His Gun. It took me some time before I realized that the guy was paralyzed from the Vietnam War. My family didn’t talk about the Vietnam War since we were rich and no one fought in it. So I sort of felt like I was reading something forbidden, and kept going, of course. Next to Johnny was The Sensuous Woman. I spent a lot of time on this book. And understood nothing. So I moved on to The Sensuous Man. There were directions to put a woman’s nipples in your mouth like you would an unpeeled grape. It took me a week just to figure out how to get the unpeeled grape to try it out.

I know you’re thinking that this is a homeschool blog, but the last conversation I had with our local school principal before I took my son out of school was that I thought it was okay to talk about pig sex in the classroom.

“But the pigs are having sex in front of my son all the time.”

“We don’t talk about that at school.”

One of the books I picked up, later on, as I made my way through the bookshelves, was Future Shock, by Alvin Toffler. It’s hard to imagine a future from where you sit in junior high. But he made me think in new ways. The book was too long to actually read. And even now, as an adult, I can’t bear to read a book that is more than 350 pages. I just don’t get it. The novel Blindness was huge and great and memorable and it didn’t take 400 pages. So why do writers write so long?

I recently came across a quote from Toffler: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read or write, it will be those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

I thought immediately of my life with my parents’ books. And then I thought, “How am I going to teach my kids to unlearn?”

The other day I was feeding my obsession with personality types, and I was reading about the difference between a perceiver and a judger. It’s clear to me that if you are a P you are likely to be willing to unlearn and if you are a J you are likely to be annoyed by the lack of order in unlearning. I see that it’s a proclivity to accept challenges to preconceived notions.

How do you teach kids to be wrong? I’m not sure. But I know that I read in the book Outliers that when people were learning pottery they learned faster if they made a pot each week instead of trying to make a great pot over many weeks. I took this to the extreme, of course:  I had my son make a pot a week, but he’s young for pottery and sometimes the pot doesn’t work. And we throw it out.

And I have a feeling that learning to throw out something you spent a lot of energy working on is a piece of what Toffler means by learning how to unlearn and relearn. In hindsight, The Sensuous Woman is a great example of this, because eventually I had to throw it all out. Including the grapes.

Which makes me want to ask myself every day, “What can I unlearn today?” But then I think how I have my hands full unlearning sending kids to school. I’m not sure how much more I can unlearn right now. And that, probably, is exactly what Toffler was warning against: thinking we can put the brakes on the need to unlearn and relearn at high speeds.

12 replies
  1. Rebeca
    Rebeca says:

    The books I’m glad my parents didn’t discard when they were finished with them are Return to Greco and Catcher in the Rye.

    I’m a J and I find unlearning very frustrating. It happens constantly for my daughter and I at Tae Kwon Do class.

    Dyson was good at it: http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/115/open_next-design.html

    “But if you want to discover something that other people haven’t, you need to do things the wrong way. “

  2. emily
    emily says:

    Hi Penelope, This post came at a really good time for me. I’m about to embark on a one week writing course and, while I had a good idea for a new project to work on, I have remnants of this old one lying around that I’ve very attached to. It is so so sad for me to look at the work and realize that it’s not THE story that I’m likely to finish and share. And yet, if I don’t proces that then there’s no hope that I’ll get the next one out anytime soon.

    Related link: I love love love this post by the late Ray Bradbury where he says, if you want to be a writer, then write one short story a week for a year. That way you’ll be able to say that after that one year, you at least have one good short story. If you try to just take the year to write the novel, your year will surely be wasted: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_W-r7ABrMYU&feature=player_embedded.

    This also reminds me of your post about taking photos of old things in your apartment before throwing them out or giving them away. I’m also learning to deal with the books that I’ve been lugging around from apartment to apartment with me all these years. It’s a big deal that i’ve got a kindle now, since I love the feeling of books in my hand.

  3. NT
    NT says:

    The protagonist of “Johnny Got His Gun” is a literally faceless paraplegic who was injured in World War I, not Vietnam. The book became popular again in the Vietnam War era because of its powerful anti-war message.

    Dalton Trumbo, a gifted and prolific author, was blacklisted during the McCarthy era.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Thank you for the correction. I guess this will be an unlearning and relearning moment for me :)


  4. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    If perceivers are better at unlearning, it’s because they delay making judgments. So I’m not sure that unlearning for Js would be the same as unlearning for Ps. For the former, it would involve constantly changing their opinion about things. For the latter, it’s just absorbing information.

  5. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I think it’s just a matter of time before you have your own page(s) on the personality types as they relate to homeschooling and career.

  6. Greg
    Greg says:

    I think the value of unlearning basic premises can be overstated. It mostly makes you weird and difficult to manage. It might have entrepreneurial advantage for some people.

    Maybe I just have J envy.

  7. Andi
    Andi says:

    My parents, too, kept stacks of books lying about — mostly science fiction, but there was also a huge Complete Shakespeare novel I worked through one summer. Now my husband & I have our own stacks of books for the children to stumble through — a mixture of science fiction & literature, social commentaries & comedies, self-improvement & DIY… a nice mix of just about everything. Both kids love to read, BTW. My 18-yr-old shares with me a passion to devour a book before it hits the screen so we can do comparisons together. And my 7-yr-old is working through Mrs. Frisby & the Rats of NIMH, underlining the words that are too hard & looking them up in a children’s dictionary. So you’re right — leaving books in plain sight does foster curiosity and growth.

  8. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Last night PBS’s Frontline series re-aired a show named Digital Nation ( http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/digitalnation/view/ ) that reminded me of this post.
    I haven’t read the book “Future Shock” but have read enough about it to understand its’ message. So when you say “I’m not sure how much more I can unlearn right now. And that, probably, is exactly what Toffler was warning against: thinking we can put the brakes on the need to unlearn and relearn at high speeds.” makes me think how important it is to control and manage both our real and virtual worlds. The kids today don’t know life without computers, games, Internet, social media, etc. while older adults grew up without them and have both experiences at different times in their lives. There isn’t any chance of going back. The key is knowing where we came from and how we got to where we are now. Awareness.

  9. Meg
    Meg says:

    I’m unlearning the school-taught significance of memorizing times tables, because I can see how it is affecting my daughter, who is normally very good at spatial and logical thinking about quantities, proportions, and portions (fractions). Even creating the times tables on her own, in grid form (10X10), which I thought would be helpful, created alienation and boredom. I sympathize; I am seeing something in them at nearly 40, which all my life until now, I only saw as a rote memorization of things which can only be figured up by adding a number to itself over and over, each time…or else take the shortcut, and memorize the right answer.

    I am seeing that this method has given her the choice between grasping real underlying concepts, or getting the answer right through memorization, because she starts guessing, wildly.

    Instead of resorting to rote, which many people assume is all there is to arithmetic, I have decided to step back and question the idea that she MUST have the answer right to “What is eight times nine?” regardless of her readiness to grasp the patterns conceptually, and I see that her talents in spatial visualization, logic, and seeing the patterns in odd and even numbers, are waiting for encouragement, instead. I am seeing that the idea that memorizing the times tables when the person cannot yet conceptualize what they really represent, is counterproductive to the goal of helping the learner exercise logical and spatial thingking skills.

    So we are unlearning the idea that that is a necessary first step, and going ahead with logic, with Venn Diagrams, and geometric awareness. Arithmetic operations are, to me at least, more complex than the more intuitive geometric ones, and there is no need, in homeschooling, to force a learner to choose between getting the answer right under pressure, and developing the far more important logical and spatial reasoning skills.

    We all feel safer going along with what is familiar. Thank goodness for bravery and the willingness to risk the unfamiliar in our assumptions, even at the cost of our own ideologies and the social approval of others.

  10. Fred2
    Fred2 says:

    I guess me and wife are the exception, aside from shelves of them, we have crates of them waiting to build more shelves and amazon tempts me every day with more.

    Can’t imagine why you’d trust anything in digital format. Just read that you don’t actually OWN the digital copies anyway, basically you, personally, have a license.

    Thanks but no thanks, I own 250 year-old books, the type is still fresh and clear, 250 years from now (with any luck) they still will be good readable copies.

    All your digital files will have long vanished into the ether, most of them within your lifetime.

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