Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Unlearn It, Live It, Love It

One's cultural and societal norms are learned in a process that begins at birth. We learn acceptable behaviors, beliefs, values, and desires, and what we have learned becomes so ingrained in us it feels like part of our nature, if not like our nature itself. Sometimes we're put in situations where we must unlearn in order to survive. When we go to war, for example, we have to unlearn the fact that we have been taught not to kill, and unlearn the fact that we have been taught to let the government or a higher authority settle disputes rather than to seek vengeance. The soldiers who return from battle psychically wounded are undoubtedly those who haven't been able to unlearn well enough.

Revolution is hard to achieve because it involves an entire culture unlearning some or all of its own norms and learning new ones at the same time. This isn't only true in politics; the "modernist revolution" in poetry involved unlearning centuries of agreed-upon ideas about representation and verse, and substituting those ideas with another, differing, value system.

The aftereffects of a generation's unlearning have defined my life. The first wave of feminists unlearned strictures of female sexuality and of women's place in the workforce, allowing me to choose any career I'd like and to cohabitate with whomever I like without regard to marriage or children. Early civil rights activists helped many unlearn patterns of segregation. Elvis helped the music industry unlearn its aversion to "black" music. Gay rights activists, by themselves unlearning conventional desire, helped unconventional desire to enter the mainstream. It's obviously a lot easier to stick with what's been learned, which is why such revolutions in thought or behavior are remarkable.

Today's primary has eclipsed the fact that it's also Earth Day. It occurs to me that the protection of our planet is one of those instances where we must unlearn in order to survive, and that the same goes for received ideas about politics. We can't go on as we've been if we want to keep going on. So unlearn something today, no matter how small. I'm off to do just that right now.


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Beth said...

One of your best, El. My students and kids have been the most powerful agents in making me unlearn. (why, why why) In turn, I've tried consciously to build unlearning into my pedagogy, whether it's classroom, tutorial, workshop, whatever. Today is a good day to devote to my un-learning some more.