If you spend any time reading about the Alexander Technique, sooner or later you’ll come across the word “unlearn”.
In fact, you’ll find people talking about unlearning bad habits in almost everything ever written about it. Which is why it’s surprising that even though I’m particularly pedantic about the Alexander technique, the word had never really bothered me until I came across it in an article which was in no way Alexander Technique related. Here’s the bit that set off my inner pedant:
“An educator’s job is no longer just about teaching, but helping students unlearn false or even harmful information they’ve picked up from the internet.”
There are two problems here. First of all, who gets to decide what “harmful information” needs to be unlearned? Educating isn’t about being an arbiter of correctness, an educator’s job is to give their students the tools to allow them to figure out what is right for themselves. Or as F. M. Alexander put it:
“The job of a good teacher is to make themselves redundant as quickly as possible”.
Secondly, what exactly is unlearning? Do you unlearn something by learning something else? Is it overwriting the existing contents of our brains with new, “better” information, as if the old thoughts never existed?
We tend to think of certain things, both about the world and about ourselves, as fixed. We say things like “I am like this” or “the world is like that”, where “this” and “that” are labels like selfish, or fun, or shy or confident, depending on how we feel at the time.
These labels aren’t lies, but they aren’t the truth either.The fact that we’ve behaved or been treated in a certain way doesn’t mean we, or other people, are that way. Nor does it mean we need to forget or “unlearn” that way of behaving before we can make a different choice.
But beyond all this, maybe the real question is, is it even possible to rid ourselves of negative qualities or ideas by “unlearning” them? If we unlearn selfishness for example, does that make us generous?
In life we have many options. Some of them may be painful, or difficult, they may bad for us or for others, and whether or not we choose them, those options will always be there. In fact, what makes our choices meaningful is the fact that we have the option to make bad choices, and sometimes we don’t.
Teaching has nothing to do with unlearning. It isn’t a form of deprogramming. It’s about offering new information, new possibilities and new perspectives, so that those we are teaching can become better, more well-rounded people.
It’s about discovering new options, not removing “bad” ones. It’s about finding ways to see the world and ourselves with fresh eyes. It’s about maximising the incredible power of choice. Even if occasionally we choose to be pedantic.