Best Possible Selves 32
In a profession where the importance of learning is paramount, the need to unlearn is one of our greatest paradoxes. In infancy and toddlerhood we make constant discoveries both about the physical world and about the ways in which our bodies interact with it. As we grow older and eventually begin the process of formal schooling, our learning extends more broadly to socialization, knowledge acquisition, and language. Only in early adolescence does the great process of unlearning become both necessary and possible.
The 6th grade social studies curriculum at our school serves as a culmination of a multi-year program and marks an important milestone in the students' ability to unlearn. Having studied the migration journeys of some seminal populations in American history (Shakers, Lowell Mill Girls, Mormons, Irish, Chinese, Native Americans, and African Americans), our students are armed with information and prepared to examine bias both in their own thinking and also in the way in which history is written. It is exhilarating to listen to their classroom conversations and to witness the explosive power of unlearning:
Maybe my image of those people was unfounded.
Now I realize how much I need to pay attention to stereotypes.
We always make assumptions about other people, but these assumptions are often founded on distorted information.
I believe that the mandate to unlearn extends far beyond the study of cultural and historical bias. In fact, I would argue that the greatest threat to an enlightened society is an unwillingness or inability to examine information and to challenge conventional paradigms. For me, this applies no less to physical science than to political science, no less in the arts than in advocacy. Our 6th graders have had an important early exposure to this kind of reflective examination; looking ahead, my hope is that they and their future teachers will carry with them the promise of unlearning at all times.