Sunday, January 3, 2016

Open letter to my students

Dear Student,
I think I may have stumbled upon the secret to learning and it’s one of those secrets that shouldn’t be kept: The best way to learn something is to assume that you don’t know it yet. I wish more of my students were not just cognisant of this fact, but utterly possessed by it. Learning begins with ignorance. In fact, it is only in this sense that I can agree that ignorance is bliss. It is bliss if it it gives way to surprise, insight, understanding, enlightenment.
The greatest struggle any teacher has, though, is probably that he or she is usually in the company of minds that are already filled: sometimes with half-chewed, second-hand ideas, shoddy prejudices, uncritical preconceptions, answers without owners, and the kind of ignorance that is the very opposite of bliss—ignorance of ignorance.
The first job of the teacher, then, is not really to teach, but to unteach; just as the first job of the student is not to learn but to unlearn. I’m not here to make your life make sense. I’m here to force you to make sense of the fact that the sense you thought was sense is not quite the sense you’ve made of it. Yes, that’s a real sentence.
It is my primary job, as I see it, to point out that the thing you’re looking at is not the thing itself but your perception of it (and I’m not a mind-body dualist, so there’s even more to this than what meets the eye). So, really, what you’re likely to see is not an answer to your question, but an affront to or an agreement with your preconceptions. I may irritate you by challenging these preconceptions, but that’s part of the deal. You signed up for this, whether you knew what you were getting into or not.
What I’m getting at about the importance of open ignorance is beautifully illustrated in that wonderful old movie Being There, which centres on a man who has no discernible personality and no sign of any real intelligence. His mind works like Google, but with only very few search results possible. And yet people see in this blank slate of a man, this man without a personality, whatever they want to see: a genius economist, a wise philosopher, an advisor to a business mogul and the President of the USA, the perfect lover, a visionary. People seem incapable of recognising his blank stares as signs of disconnection and instead see him as a vast ocean of profundities. This occurrence is what psychoanalysts call transference, which can be summed up in the idea that we don’t see the world the way it is, but the way we are. We see everything through ourselves.
To see things, to encounter them as clearly as we possibly can given the limits of our perception and the inescapability of mediation, we have to make a concerted effort to get ourselves out of the way. We will never succeed entirely in this aim, but the attempt to succeed is what matters. We have to build great towers of open-mindedness with whole rooms to furnish with wild and wonderful ideas and epiphanies that are not of our own making. If we do not do this, all we will have is ourselves and our ignorance of our ignorance—our non-knowledge masquerading itself as knowledge. In a sense, we have to demolish the mythic fortress of our own panegotism, which encloses a tame, palatable reality that has been entirely constructed to suit our own image. Truth is a wild thing, and we need to let it be wild in order to be changed by it.
So whatever it is that can help you to be confronted with the limits of your perceptions, that is what education is about. Education is whatever tells you that, at the very least, what you know is horribly incomplete or, at most, completely wrong. Education is the expansion of insight and the reduction of self.
Ah, yes, the reduction of self. I should probably say something about this.
I know you have all kinds of plans. You have your dreams. And they, too, have their place. But you are not here to say important things in your research papers or in your artwork or design work. You are not here to demonstrate to the world how significant and amazing you are, or to wow your professor/lecturer/teacher with your brilliance. Because you are still a student. You are not here to expand your own sense of self-importance. You are here to learn how to feel small. You are here to learn the meaning of awe. The same is true for me, by the way. I’m here to learn as much as you are.
Often, as a sort of mediation, I like to visit the University Library, where I will walk through the shelves, moving towards the Dewey numbers that will take me to the book that I am looking for; and I will think to myself as I look at row upon row of books, packed from floor to ceiling: I know almost nothing ofall this. A whole lifetime will not afford me the chance to gain all the understanding that is possible. And then, with this thought in my mind, I find the book I am looking for, and in time I take it to my desk, open it, and begin reading. It is here, of course, that I discover a confirmation to my intuition about what it means to learn: to learn a thing, you have to first understand that you do not know it. Perhaps, probably, you will never know it fully. 
The glorious thing, for me, is that being a student is not a matter of three or four years, or however many years you are at school or a university. It is a state of mind, a way of life. It is the recognition that we are never too old, clever, wise, handsome, ugly, intelligent, stupid, ignorant, knowledgeable, or whatever, to learn. We are never too anything to learn, unless we are too arrogant to learn.
Where I would start, though, is with this recognition that the ignorance that is the best place to start includes ignorance of self. For all the labels you attribute to yourself, you are a mystery to yourself, just as I am a mystery to me. You contain, as Walt Whitman said it, multitudes. So start by being always a student of human nature, of your own sense of self. Sit at the feet of psychologists, theologians, anthropologists, philosophers, novelists and comedians. Figure out what it means or could mean to be human, fully human. Because the self is the ground, and all other areas of study are the seeds that are to be planted in this ground.
You are the dirt, as Adam was the dirt. And it is in this dirt—this insignificant, dark, ignorant, dirty dirt—that the trees of good knowledge will grow. So, please, take on ignorance so that you will not be ignorant. Become small, for it is then that you will discover just what kind of giant you really are.
Originally posted on on July 29, 2015.

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