At the beginning of every school year, it is customary to talk about the exciting learning opportunities students will have as they drink in knowledge from the courses prepared for them by their teachers and professors. Students buy books to read; they purchase notebooks to fill up with new information; and, they order new computers or tune-up old ones to cruise the web for data about all kinds of things that they will use in papers, class presentations or group projects.
Learning makes us wiser and happier people; it makes us better friends, parents, citizens, and consumers, and more productive and contributing members of society. When it comes to universities, learning also adds the promise of more money. According to the Economic Policy Institute, a 2015 college graduate was expected to earn 56% more in a lifetime than a high school grad. Most researchers still estimate that the average university degree is worth about $1 million in extra earnings. But, perhaps the most powerful gift a good education gives you is something educators will never promote: the ability to “unlearn.”
“The first problem for all of us, men and women,” Gloria Steinem once said, “is not to learn, but to unlearn,” and this is a back tenet of belief for all religious traditions, best seen in their mystical traditions. The right kind of education gives you much more than new knowledge, new perspectives and skills, and more money. It teaches you to recognize your inaccurate, uninformed, and just plain wrong ideas. It helps you recognize immature, inappropriate, or over-the-top behaviors. More importantly, it offers you the interior tools needed to humbly change your mind, your ideas and your reactions to the ideas of others – to become someone who can rise above the human tendency to discount, demean and demonize those who think, look or act differently than we do.
And, here’s the news flash for our polarized times of tribal cocksureness: we all have as much to unlearn as we do to learn. We all have misunderstandings about history, science, politics, religion, culture, human nature, and relationships. We all suffer from tribal tendencies that unconsciously lead us to gravitate toward those people and positions that are most akin to our own. As humans, we are wired for “confirmation bias,” the habit of observing and registering the “facts” that confirm what we already believe because they are more comfortable, and ignoring the “data” that challenges our position or perspective. A defining characteristic of our times is that too many of us roam around thinking we know things that we actually do not know, or, more likely, only know things in distorted incompleteness.
Unlearning is more difficult than learning and it is only in recent decades that educational research has been able to document this disturbing reality (although many of the ancients knew it centuries ago). For example, academic all-stars in class, with great test scores and grades, and lots of accolades from their teachers in a certain area of study, still get basic facts wrong. As learning psychologist Howard Gardner cites in his book, The Unschooled Mind, researchers at institutions like MIT and Johns Hopkins have noted for years that students receiving high grades in college-level honors physics classes cannot solve basic physics problems when the problem is presented in a slightly different form than it was taught, studied and tested. In fact, these brilliant students will forget all of their sophisticated learning and retreat to uninformed perspectives that they had prior to their expensive educations.
Some researchers have referred to this phenomenon as reverting to “naïve” understandings of the world. Our naïve understandings often (actually it more accurate to say usually) remain lodged in our belief systems, even when we have learned something else in school. We need to unlearn many things we think are true, even as we learn about more accurate and sophisticated understandings. And, this dynamic doesn’t just happen in the realm of physics.
In 2009, a group of journalists and academics explored the ways in which news professionals consistently botched their representation of the role and influence of religion in society. Blindspot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion, looks at the profound inaccuracies of reporting on religion over the past 50 years. Over those years, they posit the news media has misunderstood the connections between religion and terrorism, misreported the social and cultural dynamics within Iran and Iraq, failed to recognize the profound positive influence faith-based human rights work has been making on the world, and “misunderestimated” the role of religion in the 2004 presidential campaign. If the book comes out with another edition, it will need to mention the journalistic blindspots on religion, particularly evangelicalism, in the 2016 election that put Donald Trump in the White House, and the 2018 mid-term elections that flipped the U.S. House of Representatives in the favor of the Democrats. Evangelicals both put Trump in the White House and flipped House seats to the Democrats, especially in states like Alabama. These inaccuracies have the same roots for distortion that led MIT honors students to display their misunderstandings of physics outside the classroom. Many journalists cannot see this complex religion-society dynamic because no matter what they’ve learned about religion that is accurate, they did not unlearn their naïve understandings.
To use another example, the field of the cognitive science of religion has tried to understand the disconnects between what people of faith say they think and believe from their religious and theological education, and what they actually think and believe when they are in real-world situations. This phenomenon cuts across all of the world’s religions, as D. Jason Slone illustrates in his book, Theological Incorrectness: Why Religious People Believe What They Shouldn’t.
“Why do people believe things they shouldn’t according to the tenets of their own beliefs? Why do religious people kill? Why do religious people philander? … Why do religious people pray to win wars? And why do religious people pray to win football games?”
At the very least, if God is anything like what religious traditions portray, the outcome of a football game is not part of any Divine Plan.
But, people of faith also default back into naïve understandings in their daily living, even if in their most centered and reflective moments they have far more sophisticated and accurate understanding. While you might think that this becomes easier the older we get, it actually is likely to become worse.
“While it is easy and natural to change one’s mind during the first years of life,” Gardner says in another one of his books, Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice. “It becomes difficult to alter one’s mind as the years pass. The reason, in brief, is that we develop strong views and perspectives that are resistant to change.”
This is not a new insight. The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca, who lived during the time of the birth of the Christian tradition, caught on to this way before Gardner. “The mind is slow to unlearn,” he once said, “what it learnt early.”
Humanity is relearning that it is just as necessary to unlearn what we thought we knew, as it is to demonstrate what we think we know, and we are starting to see more people push back on our many resistances to unlearning. Just recently, Ellen DeGeneres challenged a Twitter mob to unlearn their lack of distinction between a person’s political ideals and positions and his or her humanity. As a gay, liberal, Hollywood entertainer, DeGeneres was attacked for a picture of her attending a baseball game and laughing with former President George W. Bush. She challenged her detractors to unlearn their biases and replace them with learning the virtue of the real meaning of the word, kindness.
Unfortunately, it takes more than an entertainer’s challenge for us to unlearn something like the connection between our politics and our humanity. It takes a good education more generally.
Good education makes us aware of our resistances, and particularly the hardening of our views and perspectives as we age, something a Jesuit friend used to refer to as the human tendency to suffer from “hardening of the categories” as we grow older. This plaque build-up in our conceptual world is clogging the arteries of our common life every day on talk radio, every evening on cable news shows, 24/7 on many news outlets and websites of the Internet, and sometimes even in our classrooms. It illustrates that our educational systems, no matter the great things they are accomplishing, are failing to teach us the most important dimension of education: how to unlearn.
The most difficult thing to unlearn, and the root of so much of our unhappiness right now, is our misunderstandings about ourselves. Too few of us know the motivations behind many of our choices and actions; our real value system, which often deviates considerably from what we would think we value. We are often blinded to privileges we have because we are fixated on the privileges we think others have. Our interiority is a complex mixture of genetic dispositions, nurturing influences from families of origin, teachers, coaches, and friends, other environmental factors, and all of the experiences we’ve had throughout our lives. Most of this inner world operates outside of our daily visual field, often even beyond the reach of our reflective moments, and we can make our way through the world with lots of misunderstandings about how that inner world is impacting us.
It is becoming clear at this moment in our human evolution that if education cannot help us engage the reality around us in this depth of learning and unlearning, it is not much of an education. Wise people, the truly educated, are just as informed about what they don’t know as what they do.