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Unlearning - The First Step to being a Global Thinker PDF Print E-mail

5 April: Unlearning - The First Step to being a Global Thinker

Mary Hendriks

Being a Global thinker sounds cool, but how does this tie in with Unlearning?  Just what is Unlearning?  And how does it challenge our belief systems?


Being a Global thinker sounds cool, but why do we need to “Unlearn” to be one? And what is Unlearning?
Has anyone here ever stacked on a few extra kilos in weight, maybe over holidays or festive times?  And how hard was it to un-stack those extra kilos?  It’s easy to add clothes to your wardrobe, or items your collection?  But who finds it difficult to cull, to un-add, to un-collect. In the same way, we find it easy to stack on facts, add concepts, and collect theories, and these form our belief system.
Unlearning means taking something out of this belief system. 
Otto Rank, Austrian psychoanalyst and writer (1884-1939) proposed, “that separation from outworn thoughts, emotions and behaviours is the quintessence of psychological growth and development.”  (Wikipedia)
Rank’s work suggests that  “Unlearning necessarily involves separation from one’s self concept” and “learning how to unlearn is vital because what we assume to be true has merged into our identity”.  (from Wikipedia / articles on Robert Kramer, American Action learning educator who used the concepts of Otto Rank’s work)
We are all happy to learn something new, to add information. Unlearning is not so comfortable.  We challenge our own identity when we unlearn. We are culturally conditioned to conform.
Imagine something that you believe to be “rock solid”, something that is in your core understanding, something “rock solid” that defines you, and is the basis for your identity.  
Work out when you first learned this rock solid piece of your understanding, and who taught you this. Why were you taught this, and was this the best that could be offered to you at that time?   And does this rock solid piece of information now form this basis of your belief system?  What if you were faced with dilemma and found some cracks in that rock solid piece of information?
Unlearning, especially unlearning about elements of our core values, or of our society’s structure, often makes us unsettled, unsure, and uncertain about our own self concept, what we believe about ourselves, and about the world around us.
It’s definitely uncomfortable to unlearn - and to contemplate whether that “rock solid” piece of understanding might need to be subtracted.
Lao Tsu is quoted as saying “to attain knowledge, add things every day, to attain wisdom, subtract things every day”.
But unlearning may not simply be a matter of replacing one piece of knowledge with another.
As Mille (Marianne) Bojer, co-founder of the Pioneers for Change Organisation, writes:
“…unlearning is not about replacing one one-sided worldview with another. It is not about tearing down and critiquing the dominant system and then planting nice ready-made answers about the clear alternative into our emptiness. It is about unlearning one-sidedness altogether and becoming comfortable with multiple realities, with uncertainty, with openness.”
From Creating Space of Freedom for Unlearning, http://www.swaraj.org/shikshantar/unlearning_mille.htm
One-sided worldviews restrict our thinking and limit our actions to those, which are justified by our particular worldview.
Unlearning opens options. As Jedi Master, Yoda said to Luke Skywalker, who was faced with a task that seemed impossible, “only different in your mind!  You must unlearn what you have learned”. (Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back)
Unlearning is not a new concept – over 2,500 years ago, the Buddha talked about the concept of a “Yana”, which means raft. The Buddha lived in a land with many rivers, and the way across was mostly by ferry or raft. So he described the spiritual journey as one that needed a raft, a set of values, guidelines and ideas that could take you another step on the way to enlightenment.  But the Buddha was also clear that there would be a time to let go and not be caught up in the teaching, and to search for new values, guidelines and ideas for next part of your journey.
From an early age, we are taught the core teachings of our families, our communities, our cultures and our nations, and these teaching are our raft, our learned worldview.  In the past, most people lived their whole lives in one village or small town, in one country, and traditions were upheld as absolute, unable to be challenged.
However, we are now, almost 7 billion people, and a global community, where one-sided worldviews limit and obstruct our ability to successfully share this common planet.  Time to let go of the raft.
Global thinking - thinking that encompasses the planet, and its shared cultures and the global community, is a relatively new concept, and one that brings conflict with our national and cultural worldviews.
We all like to view ourselves as global thinkers, travelling around the planet Earth, aware of other cultures, keeping up to date on what happens in various regions across the world.
But no-one has a passport saying “global citizen”.  We are all nationals of defined countries, travelling with views of those nations, and thinking in ways that we have learned from our families, our education and faith systems and influenced by our particular domestic politics.
Veronica Boix Mansilla, Harvard Graduate School of Education, in her article Nurturing Global Thinkers for a New Decade  (Asia Society) defines global thinkers as “individuals who understand issues of global significance with disciplined detainment and interdisciplinary insight, who recognize and respect perspectives including their own, who communicate across social and geographical fault lines, and act based on evidence and considered judgment.”
This fairly structured definition sets the bar very high.   How do we understand the global significance of everything we do, how do we always respect other peoples perspectives and how do we act on evidence, not our own learned worldviews? 
Mark Gerzon’s recent book, “Global Citizens” provides us with some clues.  His book outlines a framework for global thinking, and is interspersed with anecdotes of people opening their minds and unlearning. 
Mark Gerzon is a global thinker who came from Jewish and Dutch origins, grew up in the US, and lived in many different countries with a variety of cultures. Out of these experiences, he became a passionate advocate for global thinking. He founded the Global Leadership Network, and educates and consults with politicians and business people on how to think globally.
All of us have worldviews that we have created in our minds.  These are “simplified narratives” that help us make sense of the world.  Our circumstances and education systems teach us to live and think within various borders, such as those defined by Mark Gerzon as “Individual, Tribal, Religious, National, and Corporate”.   Mark Gerzon argues that we all live within “a combination of these borders”, and that they prevent us from thinking globally.
The more we live and learn within these borders, the more aligned we become to values that are limited to those worldviews.  Mark Gerzon writes, “only recently have behavioural scientists documented how profoundly culture shapes our vision”.  He suggests that we open our minds and unlearn what we were told, and start again, with a broader understanding.
The question arises, why do we need to think globally – and the answer lies in the word “ownership”.
To become a multi-cultural society in Australia, we unlearned that we are all Anglo-Saxon in origin, that we were the first Australians, that we all only speak English, all eat meat, and all celebrate Christmas.   Unlearning enabled Australians to grow into a multi-cultural nation.
We began to take  “ownership” of Australia, as our country, our home.
Thinking as one diverse but united group of people, enables us to work together on national challenges such as natural disasters, and to act as a single nation on the world stage, even though our individual worldviews may be different. We each “own” Australia and we are responsible for what it means to be Australian.
Global thinking is essential for us to “own” our planet, our global home.
And global thinkers will lead the way to working together on global challenges; challenges which can only be solved by acting globally at a level above national.
Mark Gerzon calls this “geo-partnering”, working together on a global level. Mark Gerzon writes: “geo-partnering is a cross –boundary collaboration between individuals or groups that are different from each other, who often have a history of mutual mistrust or conflict”.  Successful geo-partnering is dependant on global thinking, which in turn depends on our ability to unlearn.
Let’s consider several areas of geo-partnering.  And let’s start with some areas important to us all, where there are a multitude of global viewpoints – the areas of wealth creation, food, and our big picture concept, whether that be nature, spiritual or religion based.
One challenge for geo-partnering is come up with a new model for the global economy, for the trade across the planet that forms the structure for the industrial world and creates wealth and thereby provides our incomes, our money.
The geo-partnering challenge is to connect the economy with the environment.  Our current economic models have a core assumption that the economy has little or no responsibility to the environment, and this must be unlearned before we can develop new economic models. 
Our economic wealth, minerals, food, and water derive from the environment. New economic models that understand that the economy depends on the environment must evolve globally.  But first, we will need to pass through an uncomfortable time, an uncertain time, a time of unlearning.
Dr. William Rees, Canadian author and highly awarded academic, who has developed new concepts of ecological economics, commented that "the economy is a subsidiary of the ecosystem...The only place where the environment and economy are separated is in the human mind." 
Our macro economic concepts that came out of enlightenment thinking, worked in a world where we pioneered individual nations, building industrial economies. Thinkers like John Locke espoused theories of individual ownership, in a world where resources seemed endless. Globally, that no longer applies, but we are still using economic models developed over the past 250 years.  These economic models were designed for growth economies, and we have been instilled that trade and growth of material assets are ways to achieve wealth. 
In the main, we have measured these assets in terms of money, of gold, of structures and of finished goods.  It takes a leap across an uncharted economic divide, to consider how to measure wealth from our shared ownership of fertile lands, forests, rivers, and seas with healthy fish populations, and to value unpolluted air, and the ability to generate energy from renewable sources.  Major cities, including Sydney, are now beginning to measure their wealth, and indeed, their long-term survival, on access to reliable supplies of clean water.
We have developed and value our market-based economies, where we are taught to compete for limited resources, with a “winner take all” approach. This is now under question, a topic for unlearning. 
Mark Gerzon warns against “black-and-white thinking”, where either the economy or the environment dominates at great cost to the other. He urges us to look at the puzzle of “sustainable development”, to geo-partner to find the solutions that link the environment and the economy.
Food is definitely an area where the economy and the environment are linked. And it’s one of the first areas where we can personally do some serious unlearning and become global thinking consumers.
For a planet with changing climate and food shortages due to longer periods of drought, unlearning our regional food habits will be critical to a future world that can provide nourishment for all. 
When did you learn to eat some meat, fish or poultry every day?  Producing animal protein is very energy and land intensive, and studies show that it will not be possible to feed everyone on the planet with diets high in animal protein.
Is eating meat or fish necessary on a daily basis, and could you substitute one of those meals with a meal with an alternative source of protein, such as insects?  Considerable parts of the world obtain protein from insects and we have those in abundance in a warming world.  If we stay on our learned path of a high meat and fish diet, there will be price rises, shortages, and even food riots where protein food becomes too expensive, and in some parts of the world, that is already happening.  New restaurants have opened in London, New York and Mexico, offering insects on the menu.  Would you tuck into a “bug” burger, a cricket risotto, or a dried grasshopper taco?
What is an equitable diet for the global citizen?  Global travellers will happily eat in the finest restaurants around the planet.  Is being a global thinker, choosing a diet that sustains all 6.8 billion of us in healthy bodies?  In the process of becoming a global community, will you have to unlearn your diet?
Feeding the expected two billion more people who will arrive on planet earth in the next few decades is a major challenge to our already overstretched and oil dependant agricultural practices. Unlearning in the important areas of food, food production and food waste, thinking globally, will allow us to “own” the story of the evolution of food in the 21st Century.
Towards the end of his book, Global Citizens, Mark Gerzon gives us a twenty-point plan to increase our GI, our Global Intelligence.  At least five of those twenty points relate in some way to our fixed ideas of religion, and he suggests we “transform stereotypes into relationships”.  By unlearning, by testing our learned worldview against actual facts, Mark asks us to “challenge our mental map of the world”.
We all have mental maps, which each have in them, our own “big picture concept”, our personal mix of religious, spiritual, humanist, agnostic or atheist ideas, many of which we acquired in our early development.
Some of what we have inherited enhances our lives and our communities, but other parts may be road-blocks to connecting and becoming global thinkers.
Mark Gerzon suggests we ask ourselves questions that stretch our minds. 
In our modern societies, we spend many years learning concepts and developing rational arguments within our cultural frameworks, only to find that we are unable to engage with others who are driven by strong emotional and spiritual ideas, which derive from their cultural evolution.  How can we ask others to become global thinkers, and to unlearn the fundamentally of their views, if we ourselves are working with ideas set down in our mind maps by ancient teachings and never challenged?  
Our history is our past, and is a wonderful tapestry of our cultural heritage, but un-challenged, these ancient teachings can also be our prison, and the walls that divide us from others.
Unlearning, as Mille Bojer commented, is “becoming comfortable with multiple realities” and it is this unlearning that will allow us to begin the process of thinking globally and connecting with a variety of these big picture belief systems, and to own that diversity as our global culture.
In summary - to form nations, we “separated from outworn thoughts, emotions and behaviours”, and for most nations, including Australia, this is still an on-going process. The next part of the process starts again with unlearning, and leads to global thinking, where we may need to let go of our national “rafts” and develop systems of global governance, becoming joint owners, geo-partners of the planet Earth.
That process begins with ourselves, by challenging our concept of self, to unlearn something every day, to welcome “multiple realities”, and to be the global thinkers in the uncertain times ahead!

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