Debate Magazine

“Not-learning”

By Stevemiranda

A week ago, I engaged in a conversation thread on this site’s Facebook page that generated a pretty good back-and-forth. It’s good enough that I’d like to highlight it here, with new commentary at the end.

In response to a comment, I wrote: “Here’s a story that I’ve never heard: ‘You know I always assumed I would hate that subject, but after being coerced into taking it against my will, I thankfully discovered that it was my life’s passion!’”

My friend Brandon responded:

“Actually, I think I actually HAVE heard that story—Rachel Carson was in a college English major when she was required to take a science course. The biology class she took opened her eyes to the wonder of environmental science, and a bachelor’s and master’s degree later, she wrote Silent Spring.

“I certainly agree that forcing dullness on students is dehumanizing. I don’t agree, though, that the only solution is to drop all requirements—and I think we’re selling the world short if we do. Abstract math contains within it many wonderful things that can engage all kids. So does environmental science, history, philosophy, music, world religions, literature . . . I don’t see how, if we want to help students expand themselves, we can let them stay in their provincial areas of interest. Why isn’t our goal to deeply engage them with as diverse of topics as possible?”

* * *

I don’t know much about the life of Rachel Carson, so I won’t try to speak with any authority about her. But I will speculate that, although she was majoring in English, she had not yet closed herself off to the possibility of wonder of environmental science. Carson responded to a requirement, and it changed her life.

But we can ask, what if she was in an environment in which she had a trusting relationship with an academic advisor who really got to know her well? What if that advisor picked up a hint that she might be interested in environmental science and encouraged her to talk to a few instructors in that department? What if those instructors were so excited about the wonders of environmental science that anyone within a 20-foot radius would stop what they were doing and listen to them talk about their discipline?

Would Rachel Carson have signed up for the course voluntarily—without it being a requirement—in that kind of learning environment? I suspect she would have.

This is what I see as the ideal learning environment: people who are excited about teaching and learning sharing their passion with others who are interested. In that kind of learning environment, you don’t need required courses. Students sign up for them by choice, because learning about interesting things in a setting that’s free of coercion is totally fun. If a student doesn’t sign up for a certain course, that means he’s really not interested. In that scenario, there’s no point in trying to force it.

(This isn’t hypothetical, by the way. This is the principle we put into practice every day at PSCS.)

* * *

One important benefit to eliminating required classes is that you avoid a phenomenon called “not-learning.” This was just introduced to me by my colleague Kirsten Olson, who describes it as “the willful rejection of learning based on the need to express resistance to an institution that does not honor you or your experiences.”

She quotes Herb Kohl’s 1994 book, I Won’t Learn From You. Kohl writes,

“Learning how to not-learn is an intellectual and social challenge; sometimes you have to work very hard at it. It consists of an active, often ingenious, willful rejection of even the most compassionate and well-designed teaching…It was through insight into my own not-learning that I began to understand the inner world of students who chose to not-learn what I wanted to teach. Over the years I’ve come to side with them in their refusals to be molded by a hostile society and have come to look upon not-learning as positive and healthy in many situations.”

(Join the discussion at www.facebook.com/reeducate. Get updates at www.twitter.com/reeducate.)


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