Unlearning instead of Learning: Old School and New School

First half of life = learning

Second half of life = unlearning.

Funniest comment about that last week: “We don’t have to unlearn anything in the second half of life. We just forget”.

If only it were that easy.

Recently, Jacquie and I took a tour of the school we attended from Kindergarten through high school graduation. We were there for our 50th high school class reunion. The building had been remodeled and added onto many times since we left in our caps and gowns.

  • Hallways, that we once could have walked with our eyes closed, now have walls and branches that they did not have before.
  • The old study hall is the new technology lab.
  • The old big gym is now the little gym and the old little gym has been remodeled so that its upper reaches are new classrooms and its floor, the floor I stood on as my mother registered me for my first day of school, is now a storage room used only by custodians.

As we walked around bewildered by the new layout, we agreed that we would have a harder time learning to find our way around this building than someone who had never been in it before because we would have to unlearn the building that we remembered in order to learn the building that now is.

This feels like a metaphor for my life these days. I went to the old school to learn. My teachers poured knowledge into my empty head.

And that is precisely what I gained, knowledge. I not only learned that 2+2 makes 4, but I also learned how to find the square root of 224. I not only learned that George Washington was our first President, but how to use an encyclopedia and a library to learn more facts like these. I not only learned that I need both a subject and a predicate before I have a complete sentence, I also learned how to use a dictionary in order to find the nouns and verbs that I could use in that sentence.

In the New School of the Second Half of Life, unlearning is teaching me wisdom.

In the Old School, if the numbers didn’t add up, I checked my work to find the error. In the New School, I have to unlearn that in order to gain the wisdom I need when things don’t add up – and never will.

In the Old School, I learned facts and repeated them on the test. In the New School, I have to unlearn my “facts” in order to see  through different lenses.

By coincidence, after the 50 year reunion, we attended the Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, less than 80 miles as the crow flies, from our hometown. I stopped in front of a historical marker honoring Butler’s Rangers, an irregular Loyalist militia that raided frontier communities in Western New York and Pennsylvania during the War of 1812.

“Wait a minute”, I thought, “these guys were terrorists”.

That was what the Old School had taught me. They had burned settlements and tortured and killed American patriots in order to stop American heroes like General Sullivan, who was marching through the same area burning settlements (including Niagara-on-the-Lake) and torturing and killing people loyal to George III.

Perhaps, I will approach the word “terrorist” and the word “patriot” with more wisdom from now on.

What are you unlearning these days?


6 thoughts on “Unlearning instead of Learning: Old School and New School

  1. I have been and still am unlearning the “hurry up”
    When I was working it was always “hurry up” get to work, “Hurry up” get work done, “Hurry up” get home so you can “hurry up” and do something else.
    I still have days where it seems I’m in a hurry, but I am slowly beginning to realize that whatever It is, most likely it can wait. I can slow down. I can enjoy the moments instead of hurrying through them.

    1. I’ve been dealing with this, too. I am learning that I get more done when when I am not hurrying. Kind of interesting paradox.

  2. Roger, Well said. My first thought after I read your post is that when I was first “learning” 2+2+4 etc. I never considered time. I assumed it was unlimited, and so I think I was casual about the things that I put, or were being put, into my head. I was, indeed, in the moment., not because of any Zen proclivities, or mindfulness, but probably more from the narcissism of youth. Time was infinitely fungible. Now as I unlearn so much, and settle in to wisdom that allows me to appreciate little things I took for granted or ignored, I am acutely aware of time. The 16 year old me would never have understood. But the 68 year old me contemplates time all the time. God grant me acceptance of this untimely discovery.

    1. That is really profound, Ralph. I am going to think about what it means to live with the consciousness that time is limited

  3. Whoa! My first response is “never entered my mind”–BUT after I think a bit, there’s a niggling suspicion that I’ve got a lot to unlearn. My current pattern of activity is falling apart because of physical limitations, much slower “uptake,” etc. When we get down to the nitty gritty, priorities are easily changed. Time spent shepherding children can be shifted to community service, self-improvement, nurturing friendships, or just contemplating. I’ve decided that now, in the last third of my life, the focus is leaving a legacy of family history for the future generations. Old calendars, letters, diaries, photos that we unearth from storage boxes take on prime significance in this effort.

    1. An interesting shift, Martha. Stephen Covey used to say we should “Live, Love, and Leave a Legacy”. Maybe that sums it all up.

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