Home > Personal - Essays > Unlearning School and Learning to Learn

Unlearning School and Learning to Learn

I’ve spent less time reading and learning recently, and more time thinking and struggling about how I want to live my life. Not being in school and still wanting to learn things, I have had to face how much of my motivation to follow through on something is external–how much I embark on projects I think I “should” do to be a more learned person, rather than following my nose with things I enjoy.

There’s some value to setting out pathways and structures for getting where you want to be. But I’m starting to understand that each brick of those paths has to be one you lay yourself, after some consideration. I know now that pushing through syllabi quickly isn’t the route to true understanding, and to learn a subject well you have to dwell on the things that confuse you, not skip over them (something that the pace of formal schooling and the fact that exams don’t necessarily focus on the things that are hard for *you* personally tends to encourage). I don’t have grades to worry about or perishable resources (university resources) that I’m wasting this year – but I’ve mostly still been acting like I do in how I learn. I have to face the fact that it’s much more important to just learn something than to procrastinate doing the hard thinking by making lists and roadmaps and bucket lists for things to learn. I truly am curious about the things I’m trying to learn about, but I still seem to treat the learning process as an inherently painful and goal-directed one, rather than something that I can go through playing to my strengths and interests.

I also have to face up to what my motivations for trying to learn things are. To a certain extent, if I’m honest, they’ve been “to know everything.” Of course I don’t actually have that goal–but, for example, I tend to insist to myself that I have to learn a particular subject as outlined in a university syllabus, and to diligently scramble to find a way to process and remember everything a course throws at me, rather than picking the things I’m most interested in to focus on. I’m well aware of the importance of one’s audience to the content and style of what one writes, but I haven’t successfully extended these basic principles to the learning process and what its aims are: I say, “I want to learn basic molecular biology” and force my sleepy eyes over pages of biochemistry that I know I won’t remember the details of, even though nobody else but me is insisting that I follow standard learning maps, and it’s well known that we don’t retain what doesn’t interest us.

I know in principle that I (myself as an instance of “anyone”) learn best when I need the knowledge or tool to answer a question I care about. It’s obvious in the writing case, where good writing is shaped around an argument and an angle, not a braindump of everything related to the subject at hand (even a structured one). I know how articulating that “objective” line at the top of a resume can suddenly make my motivations and story about myself cohere when I feel at my most scattered. So I’m going to try to spend less time making lists of subjects I want to learn and collecting syllabi as crutches, and more mining my memory for questions that I’d like to know the answer to, enough to learn the foundations of a subject area. (Of course, happily, this is a synergistic process: having a genuine question leads to systematic study of things you care about, or need to care about to satisfy other cares, which leads to more questions you genuinely want to know the answer to.)

Doing things for external reasons has its egotistical aspects, but for me, it’s also been part and parcel of depression and self-worth struggles. I spent a lot of time thinking I’m only worth as much as I give to other people, and in that framework, self-improvement that doesn’t have clear and direct external impact is not valued. When depressed, I can convince myself that having wants is selfish, that wanting alone time for self-care is selfish. But that belief gets you nowhere, including in your ability to help others. We are all alone with ourselves for most of our lives, and it is in that time alone that we form and re-form the habits and values that will dictate how we interact with others and treat ourselves: social interactions can reinforce a habit or spark interest in a change, but it is always you alone who will have to see the change-project through and have a vision for why it’s important. And it is you alone who will have the complete and unvarnished account of your progress to measure yourself with, you alone who can serve as judge when nobody else is looking to keep you honest to your best self.

So: I want to find ways to make the values I have articulated to myself as important into habits that are borne out in my life. I  want to learn to be a better and more honest judge of my own character, still able to hold court in matters not of public record. Most importantly, I need to find ways to undercut the moralistic overtones of my “self-improvement” project and understand to my core that being my best self is something that will bring me better quality of life, not just something to shoot for to get gold stars or self-congratulation or the moral high ground. I want to feel good because I’m living the way I want to, as I mosey in that direction–not because I’ve attained the “improved self” goals I obsessively set out for myself evenings. If I set goals, I almost don’t want to tell anyone about them specifically unless there’s real support I need that I’ll only get that way, because not keeping them private makes me vulnerable to external motivators like “showing I’m a reliable/dedicated/moral person” and “being known as having admirable goals.” I also need to get past the point where I have certain goals seemingly only to show those things to myself, but for now I think I’d settle for only wanting to impress myself–that’s going to be hard enough.

So if I detail any goals here, it’ll be to catalogue a journey that’s important to me, and only for that reason. To the extent that I’m open about changes I want, I pledge to talk about my failures as much as my successes. I want to talk about the things in my life that have led me to want changes badly, and the ways I’ve prevented myself from taking action towards those changes, because focusing on how great the changes would be if implemented hasn’t done much for me so far but make me feel bad.

On a related note, I’ll be talking soon about the strong impulses towards military service and religious devotion that I’ve had throughout my life, and how the hell a liberal atheist came to have them. I’ll also get specific about what I’m having to unlearn and how I plan to live with myself while doing that.

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Categories: Personal - Essays
  1. June 25, 2012 at 5:27 am

    This is wonderful, Katie. Thank you – and I look forward to hearing more.

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