Learning, Unlearning, and Relearning

The illiterate of the twenty-first century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.

- Alvin Toffler, quoted by Jack Molisani in Be the Captain of Your Career

I’d seen this quotation before and liked it. But either the quotation stopped, or I stopped reading, after the word learn.

"My brain is full" cartoon

By unlearning things, I hope to avoid situations like this. (Source: The Far Side)

When I encountered the whole quotation I was brought up short. Sure, I recognize the need to learn — and keep on learning — in today’s world. (I even wrote about it recently.)

But do we need to unlearn and relearn too? What in the world does Toffler mean?

Then I thought of some things I’ve had to unlearn in my own life.

  • The idea, for a writer, that content and formatting are joined at the hip. Adopting structured authoring, with the potential it affords for writing content once and reusing it in many formats, disabused me of that antiquated notion.
  • The idea that you can do the same thing for your entire career. My father, a high-school teacher, worked in the same classroom for 40 years — almost from the day he was discharged from the Army until the day he retired. When I started working at IBM, the corporate culture definitely supported the idea of settling in for an entire career. (Of course, you might change locations: I’ve Been Moved.) That model, and the two-way loyalty on which it was based — employee to employer, and vice versa — have gone the way of the dodo bird.
  • Insensitive social attitudes. I blanch when I remember the jokes we laughed at, in my high-school and college years, at the expense of people in different ethnic groups. Those jokes and stereotypes were insensitive, if not downright cruel, and I realized that as soon as I began giving the matter any thought. It didn’t take long for me, and most of my peers, to unlearn those old attitudes — to the point where, if one of those jokes were told today, it would offend rather than entertain. Do we, as a culture, still have a long way to go? Yes. But have we made some progress over the last few decades? Fortunately, we have.

As the 21st century unfolds I’m doing my best to stay literate. Learning, yes. But also, when necessary, unlearning and relearning.

What have you unlearned and relearned recently?

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