Friday, October 21, 2011

The Unlearning Imperative

True learning as a process must include constant unlearning...

I remember sitting perplexed in Class XI and XII as NS Ganesh, our Chemistry teacher, went about demolishing most of what we had learnt about the atom in previous years. From JJ Thompson’s plum model to the current quantum model, the history of the atom is a story of constant unlearning. The story does have its share of conflicts between opposing schools of thought, however each of them in turn were bold enough to unlearn what had been discovered by their predecessors and peers and ultimately reconcile with fact and evidence.

Indeed Science and Cosmology in particular have seen momentous phases of unlearning over several hundred years. Theories and laws put forth by giants such as Newton and Einstein were challenged. It is simply not possible to comprehend the world of the small – quantum mechanics – without unlearning everything one has learnt from Newton’s laws and Einstein’s theory of relativity.

The Universe is full of surprises and anyone incapable of or unwilling to unlearn is best advised to stay away from the domain of Cosmology. First the big bang, then the notion of an accelerating expansion of the universe, dark matter, dark energy…We are not done yet, there is so much more to unlearn about the Universe.

It is ironic that Einstein, in his later years, was reluctant to unlearn. He was unwilling to reconcile to the world of quantum mechanics and hence is supposed to have stated “God does not play dice with the Universe”.

Modern day technology is propelled by innovation. Innovation, not accompanied by unlearning, results in the desktop computer becoming faster, smaller and cheaper. But disruptive innovation, that accompanied by unlearning, results in devices like the iPod and iPad. Changes that will forever change the way we live.

During the Axial Age – latter half of the 1st millennium BC – thinkers from Greece, Middle East, India and China, abandoned and disowned prevalent social practices and religious beliefs. From that tumultuous period rose the Vedanta, Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism, Platonism and Zoroastrianism.

Alas, even in this age of scientific temper, our religions and social practices are stifled by dogma and intolerance. Instead of looking inward and correcting that which is so obviously wrong, everyone is expected to accept and not question as this will offend the millions who belong to the particular faith that is being questioned.

A second Axial Age is long overdue, however in the current political climate the world over, I do not see the spark being ignited any time soon.

Modern day economy has its share of unlearning too, but from completely unexpected quarters. I point you in the direction of China (and not America). No doubt, stung by the crisis of Tiananmen Square, China (then) under Deng Xiaoping initiated a gradual process of unlearning staunch communism and incorporating their brand of capitalism. Even as this unfolds, America lurches from one economic crisis to another. America is today a victim of its belief systems. And unless its people and politicians summon the courage to question their current belief systems, including the hallowed capitalism and democracy (their versions), things are unlikely to change.

A true indicator of freedom is the ability of individuals and society to question without fear. And in that environment of true freedom will come true learning. I despair, that today, there is no country in this world, including America, where one is truly free. But, as they say, hope is eternal. The movements in the Arabic world rekindle that hope. The great nations of the world must show the way. And I wish that India would be one of them. May I die in a land where the mind is without fear….

No comments:

Post a Comment