Many educators have the wrong idea about teaching. They mistakenly believe that teaching is hard because, so they think, students are reluctant to learn. Nothing could be further from the truth. Learning is easy and comes naturally like breathing, but unlearning is hard.
We have to adopt totally new ideas and learn to reverse what we think we already know. The curriculum I am proposing would expose the habitual nature of our opinions and challenge us to rethink them.
Unlearning is much more difficult than learning. But we do not have a choice.
Take, as an example, the venerable game of chess. As a beginning player you quickly learn to protect all of your pieces. Leaving a knight or a bishop vulnerable will almost certainly lose you the game against a competent player. This lesson of protecting your material or pieces is a valuable lesson but it is one that you have to unlearn if you ever want to be more than a mediocre player; because in the end game you need to master the art of the sacrifice. You need to give up pieces for better positions and strategical advantage in order to win.
Teaching can seem like a thankless chore at times, but not because students are reluctant to learn. They are reluctant to unlearn. I was the worst kind of teacher. You know the kind I mean, an English teacher with my little red pen, marking up hundreds of thousands of essays to point out tiny mistakes in grammar. That was my job. I got paid to teach perfect and formally correct writing. But my students weren’t interested. I would draw little circles around their ampersands and write out the word “and” in the space between the lines. Did I really think they were going to have a moment’s thought about that little interaction? They had learned to use an ampersand instead of writing out the word “and” many years before; and they were going to do it every time because that’s what they had trained themselves to do.
Let’s talk about personal health, because I have heard of this brand new fad for health. Not many people have heard of it. Wait for it. “Diet and exercise.” Just kidding. Everybody has heard about the benefits of diet and exercise. If you are around my age, your doctor has been trying desperately to teach you about it for several years. Being a doctor can be very frustrating work; because we have all learned that we need hamburgers and chocolate cake, and many of us have learned that getting sweaty is an unpleasant thing. No amount of teaching is going to undo this basic equation. We have to unlearn before we can ever hope to learn. This is not easy! I heard about a study done on some of the contestants on “The Biggest Loser.” They, like just about everyone else, put the weight back on. The study indicates that your body has a body memory, and that your body will actually fight to get back to your former weight.
Let’s talk about politics briefly. My neighbor has a sticker on his truck that says, “Liberalism is a mental disorder.” He thinks I’m crazy because I tell him that he is one of the most liberal people I know. He is a huge gun rights advocate. If you believe in the rights of individuals to keep and possibly even to carry, then you are promoting individual rights, and that’s a “liberal” value.
The next time you see someone who dresses differently than you, don’t mentally put them into an arbitrary category. Are they wearing a hoodie? Maybe they are on their way to the gym. Unlearn your biases. Help me to unlearn mine. Please.
We need a method to unlearn, and we need steps to unlearn, and by “unlearn” I mean “rethink”.
So how could we devise a curriculum that would foster unlearning? Here are the five components that I would suggest:
1. First identify an intractable problem which is not giving way to ingrained perceptions and conflicting viewpoints.
2. Study the history of this problem with an eye towards revealing the beginnings of ideological movements on either side of the issue. The main idea should always be that ideological movements are largely biased, ingrained, and ineffective.
3. Identify the common ground between opposing points of view.
4. Brainstorm effective strategies for mediating between opposing groups.
5. Implement, to the best of your abilities, these mediation strategies.