Unlearning

The concept is an important one for Pseudo-Dionysius, whose name was mentioned this morning on the Silver and Black pride blog.  Googling it (the concept) resulted in a lot of hits, so here is a sample:

For many college students the beginning of learning how to write well is to unlearn much of what they’ve been taught. Most students arrive at college with a grab-bag of rules that they try their best to adhere to. They’ve never really thought about these rules, or wondered if they make sense (understandably, since their teachers probably didn’t either). But students believe that following these rules will help produce “good writing,” and that “bad writing” is defined as breaking the rules.

If you think the “rules” are your best guide to good writing, you’ve got some serious throwing-away to do as the first step in your growth as a writer.

Some of the false or overly simplistic rules about essay-writing I’ve heard most often: don’t split infinitives, don’t start a sentence with but or and, don’t use direct questions, don’t abbreviate, don’t say I or you, don’t end sentences with prepositions, avoid pronouns as being too informal, and write essays in precisely five paragraphs. There are also lots of idiosyncratic usage edicts. Some teachers for instance require their students to dutifully change towards into toward every time they come across it.

Yes, I’ve had such students, and the phenomenon isn’t limited to writing.


5 thoughts on “Unlearning

  1. This is so true. Learn to forget. It is applicable in anything. Your example of writing is a good one. It made me think of music first. To learn how to play music it helps to learn chords, scales and bars. It helps to learn other songs. To truly play though, at some point you have to forget what you have learned and just feel it.

    Often the greatest innovations come from those who forget everything they know about something. After music, Einstein came to mind.

    1. Yes, Einstein, and also Feynman (his book, Surely You Are Joking, Mr. Feynman is absolutely amazing). I have to make a post about Feynman one of those days…

      Playing music, reading, walking, skiing – anything. We learn how to do it and then seem to forget the rules, because we stop fixating on those and discover the joy from the activity itself. I think though the rules are still there, we just don’t notice them anymore.

      1. I’ve only heard of Feynman in connection to the Manhattan project and I had no idea he wrote a book.

        I was thinking further about the rules and it seems the greater one understand them and rises above them the simple and more base they can become.

        For instance, I was watching Ichiro hit tonight. You would never show his swing to someone and say if you want to hit, just do it like Ichiro. I mean he slides his back foot around, which is one of the first things hitters are told not to do. He does this though to help him square up to a position where he can keep his bat in the plane of the ball. He keeps his hands back and optimizes the amount of time the barrel head is on the hitting plane.

        He started off with a much more conventional swing while in Japan. He dropped some of the rules and made new ones, while optimizing the results the rules were made for.

        It comes down to more of an understanding of the purpose of the rules than an adherence to them. Does this make sense or did I get lost in my own rambling?

        1. Oh yes, it makes perfect sense! Understanding the purpose of the rules and then improvising with them. You have to write something on that on the SBP.

          Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I do well and how I do it, and how I learn and such – first, because I have to explain to my students what to do with those wicked Latin and Greek paradigms and translations, and second, because I myself have been learning (and unlearning) a lot of new things lately. So you distilled my thoughts perfectly.

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