Learning, Unlearning & Relearning

This piece is slightly different from what I usually post on this blog, but I believe I have a unique perspective on the issues concerned, as I will explain in the main text.

I would like to discuss the current advertising campaign from the University of Sydney, and in particular the chosen keyword:


Unlearn. Why? What is that supposed to mean? My criticism will be concerned mainly with this keyword. Let us first examine the following excerpt:

“To be brave enough to question the world, challenge the established, demolish social norms and build new ones in their place.”

I do not object to anything in that sentence, and nothing radical has been expressed either. I think that all universities aspire to be places of innovation and creativity, and this is more or less the usual image a university wants to impress on the general public. However, I do not agree at all with the use of the word “unlearn.” To challenge, question, innovate, re-imagine —  none of these necessarily entails a process of “unlearning”. Furthermore, the prefix “un-” is a negation, and thus immediately suggests a negative process — an “undoing” of sorts — while the other buzzwords are more constructive.

For an example definition, I consulted the online Oxford Dictionary:

unlearn v. Discard (something learned, especially a bad habit or false or outdated information) from one’s memory.

To discard something from one’s memory requires an “active forgetting” of the thing to be unlearned. Not only does one make an effort to replace the undesirable habits and thought patterns with a collection of new behaviours, but one also ensures that the undesirable habits do not make a reappearance. In other words, the new behaviours must be practised until they override the old ones. If we treat the human brain like a computer (and in many ways, it is just that, albeit an immensely complex one), then we might view unlearning as an analogue to Ctrl-Z, the undo function. Suppose you are working on a PowerPoint presentation, and make some changes to the slides which you find unsatisfactory. It is safe to assume, when you hit undo and rework a new copy, that you don’t want any traces of the bad copy anywhere in your final presentation. The problem is that our brain cannot suddenly “switch on” these changes like a computer. If you have visited this blog before, you will probably have come across my posts on focal dystonia. Drawing from my experience with this condition, which has prevented me from playing the violin for several years already, I will give an example of what unlearning entails, and provide some reasons why I think this does not reflect what the university is trying to promote.

Here is a summary of the key facts: focal dystonia is a task-specific neurological condition which significantly impairs coordination. It is a malfunction of an extensively trained set of movements, such as those required for instrumental playing. A type of dystonia that may be more commonly known (i.e. known outside musical circles) is writer’s cramp. Medical treatments for dystonias are available but results may vary from person to person — unfortunately in my case, medical intervention proved unhelpful in the long term. What is possible, but very time-consuming, is the process of unlearning and relearning. The plan is to somehow forget the old set of movements which trigger the dystonia, and replace them with new behaviours, which will of course correspond to opening new neural pathways in the brain. This isn’t really magic — after all, this is exactly what the brain does when we learn new things, and although I am no expert in neuroscience, I think I am correct to state that our brains show capacity to learn even in adulthood. Nevertheless, I imagine anyone who has been monolingual for most of their life and then tries to pick up a foreign language in adulthood will probably find it a difficult task at first. Of course, the acquisition of any new skill will require practice anyway, but I like to use the example of learning a foreign language, because in this process one is required in a very obvious way to think differently, as the mind grapples with entirely new words and ways of expression. (For example, when learning German, it took some time for me to get used to the fact that verbs in a subordinate clause sit at the very end… and also to navigate the swarm of commas that ensue from using subordinate clauses).

However, a crucial difference with focal dystonia is that by learning a new language, you are not also trying to forget your native tongue. Thus you may now appreciate how truly difficult it is to forget one way of violin playing and replace it by another! What does all this have to do with the university’s Unlearn campaign? The first key point is that unlearning is a drastic option. Afflicted with focal dystonia, I had no other choice but to unlearn, if I wanted to play the violin again. The process of unlearning began by distancing myself from the violin completely. I did not try to play anything at all for many months. Moreover, I enrolled in a Bachelor of Science, which certainly kept me busy and my mind sufficiently occupied by things that were not violin playing. Very gradually, I picked up the violin again, and focused only on the most basic movements, and still without playing anything — it was as if I had to learn the instrument anew. This is where the unlearning and relearning overlap. Going forward in time a couple of years, I am now at a stage where most of the crucial unlearning has been achieved, and I am able to practise scales, etudes, and selections from my favourite repertoire, albeit slowly at first. The focus is now on relearning, to consolidate the new movements so that they eventually replace the old techniques. This arduous process is definitely not how we want to learn other things. We do not necessarily want new information to override previously learnt things completely. This leads to another main point, which is a result of my training in the sciences.

Two of the most important subjects in modern science (and arguably in all of human inquiry of the universe) are quantum physics and relativity, both born at the beginning of the 20th century. Both revolutionised the way we see the universe: quantum mechanics gives us the tools to probe the atomic world and ask questions about the fundamental building blocks of the universe; relativity (special and general) takes us to the opposite end of the spectrum, enabling us to explain the dynamics of the universe as a whole, with key concepts such as the expansion of the universe and the curvature of spacetime. However, the discovery of new laws of nature did not render the existing framework of classical physics obsolete. Quite on the contrary, classical physics is still extremely relevant and useful, but quantum physics and relativity extends our understanding of the universe to encompass a much larger class of natural phenomena. Thus, while it is undeniably true that physicists had to “challenge the norm”, introduce new postulates of physics, and “reimagine the world” (to quote from the ad again),  I do not think it is true that physicists at the beginning of the 20th century were unlearning in any way. This is part of a more general pattern in science. It is not even desirable to unlearn hypotheses and theories which turn out to be wrong, because very often, to identify the error requires a shift in perspective and exploration of new ideas. To put this more bluntly, problem solving in science can often be about knowing what not to do, especially because it is not always clear what to do if one is working on a brand new theory! There should be a balance here: on one hand, we should not be overly burdened by older theories and methods, as that may hinder progress, but neither should we obliterate and unlearn everything from the past in order to move forward. As an example of how this may be applied in practice, I attach this extract from an interview with the mathematician Andrew Wiles:

I really think it’s bad to have too good a memory if you want to be a mathematician. You need a slightly bad memory because you need to forget the way you approached [a problem] the previous time because it’s a bit like evolution, DNA. You need to make a little mistake in the way you did it before so that you do something slightly different and then that’s what actually enables you to get round [the problem].

This was taken from this article. The key phrase here is “slightly bad memory”, which, in the spirit of this blogpost, I interpret as saying “unlearn some things, but not all the things!” Furthermore, the comparison with DNA mutations is quite interesting, and reinforces the point that to make progress on a problem, it is not always advisable to throw out a method entirely. Rather it is about making small nudges in different directions until suddenly you stumble on a new path that leads to a solution.

Diversion: I quite like this video, mainly because of the term “chasm of ignorance”.

But perhaps you have objections. Even if unlearning is not the typical pattern of progress in mathematics and the natural sciences, what about in other areas of inquiry such as the social sciences and humanities? Surely, there are harmful ideas and behaviours that should be unlearned and replaced. Wouldn’t it be great if we all unlearned prejudice, bias, and discrimination, for instance? Yes, perhaps, but again, I emphasise a distinction between realising that something is wrong or harmful, and trying to forget it entirely. When the university is advocating to “Unlearn X”, where X stands for various social issues, I do not think that any reasonable person would advocate forgetting the lessons taught by history — or else we are doomed to repeat it, as the popular saying goes. Notice that throughout this blogpost, I have focused all my arguments on the use of the word “unlearn”, and not necessarily on the main ideas of the campaign, which in fact are reasonable goals for a modern university. The real danger with repetition of the word “unlearn” is that it gives the impression that one ought to forget everything one has learned about a certain subject. As I have argued above, at least from a scientific perspective, this is unreasonable, for how can our current state of knowledge be possible without resting on a solid foundation of prior scientific work? To use Isaac Newton’s famous phrase, if we have seen further it is because we have stood on the shoulders of giants. This attitude seems to be in direct contradiction with unlearning. Even in the social sciences and humanities, where advancement of knowledge proceeds in a less rigorous fashion, and it is possible that a highly original thinker or artist produces a work seeminly out of the blue that blatantly challenges the accepted norms of the day, I would not agree that this is necessarily a result of unlearning. We may consider the composer and conductor Pierre Boulez as an example from the realm of modern classical music. In the 1950’s, Boulez became infamous for his avant-garde music and also for some provocative statements regarding the classical tradition, suggesting no less than to “burn down all the opera houses” ! This was part of the “tabula rasa” (Latin for “blank slate”) attitude at the time, when young composers essentially sought to expel all traces of the classical (and largely Germanic dominated) tradition from their work. I wonder if it ever occurred to him that later in his life, he would go on to direct highly acclaimed productions of Wagner operas! Throughout his long career, Boulez was always challenging musical traditions, but his performances of music from the 19th century and early 20th century makes it clear to me that he had not unlearned the heritage of Western classical music. In a strange way, his analytical, modernist approach even lends a hand in rejuvenating the old masterpieces, casting them in a different light.

One final example to reinforce the main arguments:


Out of the all the “unlearn” posters, perhaps the worst is the one above, Unlearn truth. As a mathematician, this is complete nonsense. Mathematical truths are simply not unlearned, otherwise they would not be truths in the first place. For example, we may not be doing geometry in the same way as the Ancient Greeks did — so perhaps in a sense, we have unlearned the original methods and terminology — but the theorems still hold. Now thinking more generally, it is still not more reasonable to “unlearn truth”. Reading the description, the intention is to motivate us to think critically, and to prevent ourselves falling into the traps of fake news, propaganda, and conspiracy theories. This is undeniably a positive and worthwile endeavour, but the phrase “unlean truth” seems to be in direct contradiction. Could it not be that we are in fact already in the process of unlearning truth precisely because of fake news and internet bullshittery? If anything, we should be actively relearning truth.

In summary, my main arguments against the use of the word “unlearn” in this advertising campaign stem from my experience with focal dystonia, and the need to unlearn focal dystonia in the hope of performing violin again in the future. I see contradictions between the word “unlearn” and the intended message as explained in the descriptions below the heading, and thus the campaign has potential to be misleading and counter-productive, especially when there are posters around Sydney CBD with just the words UNLEARN TRUTH without context. Even if the meaning is clear, then the reader must accept that “unlearn” is somehow synonymous with other education buzzwords like “re-imagine”, “innovate” and “challenge”. Leveraging my own experience with an unlearning process, I hope I have made a case for why “unlearn” should be identified as separate from the other concepts, which I believe are more constructive and productive.

Click here to visit the Unlearn campaign.

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