Learning, unlearning and relearning

On June 12, 2007, I found myself as a speaker at the pre-departure workshop organised by the Public Affairs Section of the United States Embassy at Victoria Island, Lagos, for the 2007/2008 Exchange Grantees. Though my presentation was captioned “Between The US And Us: (T)here You Go,” I dwelled more on the opportunities that Fulbright and other US exchange programmes offer anyone to learn, unlearn and relearn drawing from my own experience, having returned a year earlier.

A few years after, I came across Alvin Toffler’s quote, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”  The striking quote would later become the crux of the “The 21st Century Illiterates,” which appeared in this column on Wednesday, April 9, 2014.

Dear friend, there should be a symbiotic relationship among learning, unlearning and relearning, though emphasis is often on the first. The whole essence of formal education is learning, as evident in many mottoes of our schools and institutions. However, our contemporary reality has shown that while not de-emphasising learning, unlearning and relearning have to be taken with equal seriousness.

Basically, learning is the process of acquiring new knowledge, information, skills and attitudes – a life-long phenomenon or a “from-the-cradle-to-the-grave” affair, as the Teacher, Muhammad (PBUH), described it. Its continuous and refreshing dimension once made Henry Ford to submit: “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.”

Unlearning, on the other hand, is the process of discarding deeply-held beliefs and notions about people and phenomena through conscious and continuous (re)learning. For instance, no ethnic group is “bad” and no religion is “evil”. We have all been fed with tissues of lies based on bias and prejudice to such an extent that we hold mere sentiments as truth. As Phillip Emeagwali memorably said, even our notion of “history” is nothing more than “his story”, meaning someone’s version of what actually happened.

Relearning, meanwhile, is the process of creating new understanding and attitudes around the concepts and issues we already know. We only see our true selves reflected in others. So, whatever has been learnt can be relearnt in a different way, which is the essence of (re)training.

The triad of learning, unlearning and relearning is significant to our collective peace. There is so much bile, so much hatred, so much prejudice, so much wickedness and so much inhumanity around us. However, those who perpetrate these atrocities are not necessarily people without knowledge; they may even be “learned”.

Here, there are irresponsible leaders with good degrees occupying positions of responsibility. They stoke violence having failed to unlearn their “do or die” political mentality. They are consumed by the allure of power without learning from the unfolding experiences of yesterday’s men of power and influence.

In the US, there is a presidential hopeful who encourages his millions of supporters to physically attack those who disagree with him.  As Hillary Clinton submits, “Donald Trump is running a cynical campaign of hate and fear. He is encouraging violence and chaos. He is pitting Americans against each other.” But “love trumps hate”!

We have learnt so much over the years but we have not learnt the lessons of history, relearnt our values and unlearnt our bigotry. The late American comedian, George Carlin (1937-2008), jolted us to sense when he said: “We’ve cleaned up the air but polluted the soul. We’ve conquered the atom, but not our prejudice. We write more, but learn less. We plan more, but accomplish less. We’ve learned to rush, but not to wait. We build more computers to hold more information, to produce more copies than ever but we communicate less and less.” In this state of “civilised ignorance”, how can we have peace of mind?

We’ve learnt so much trash and vermin. Let us begin to unlearn them all. Let us relearn the positive things we have learnt. Let us live to learn and learn to live like human beings, not like beasts that are just obsessed with attacking, destroying and killing.


Re: Dada’s magic wand

A nation that fails to embrace academic excellence will always struggle to attain educational and economic advancement. The Philippines is thriving due to the export of its human resources such as nurses, doctors, engineers, to developing and developed countries in a continuous manifestation of how education is taken seriously. Ayodele Dada is a hero that deserves special attention above those immorality-preaching celebrities who are perceived as role models and heroes of sort by the brainwashed youths. I urge the government to pay serious attention to the likes of Ayodele Dada to reduce the brain drain syndrome in our country. – Aina Akindele Oyebanji, Ketu, Lagos State.