Thursday, June 22, 2017

Learning from a learner who knew that to learn was to live


I say to my students - so often that it's become something of a catch-phrase - that if they're the same people who came into this postgraduate school when the time comes to leave it, their stay here has been a colossal waste for everyone concerned (and a bloody expensive one, at that). What's the point - and where's the proof - that we're alive at all if we aren't  every moment grappling with the idea of 'becoming' rather than merely 'being'? Needless to say, as with most of the ideas I paw-play-toy with, I can also trace this one back, at a tiny remove, to that old imp who causes me so much grief because he's a very demanding task-master. Yes. You know the one. 

I'll let him speak for himself:
"I would like to say to the diligent reader of my writings and to others who are interested in them that I am not at all concerned with appearing to be consistent. In my search after Truth I have discarded many ideas and learnt many new things. Old as I am in age, I have no feeling that I have ceased to grow inwardly or that my growth will stop at the dissolution of the flesh. What I am concerned with is my readiness to obey the call of Truth, my God, from moment to moment, and, therefore, when anybody finds any inconsistency between any two writings of mine, if he has still faith in my sanity, he would do well to choose the later of the two on the same subject." This, of course, could only be Gandhi. He writes these words in an article in Harijan in 1933, from where they come to form the 'Note' to the Reader in the 1938 edition of perhaps the single most vital manifesto to emerge from the 20th-century, the terribly misunderstood Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule.

Think closely about what the old man is saying here. It flies in the face of conventional wisdom and the very foundation of our education system, which largely sees the realm of learning as a bulwark against doubt; against not' knowing', which is to be eschewed at all cost. Such a system would impose upon us a consistency (because as critical pedagogy demonstrates, education is political: if it doesn't teach you to question what you take for granted as your 'reality', and is innocent of the socio-economic conditions that shape the very classroom space you inhabit, such learning can only serve to maintain and perpetuate the status quo) and foreclose the possibility upon which the world lives and dies: change. To live is to learn is to change, Gandhi seems to tell us, adding that age or station or profession have little if anything to do with the project of education which is little more than a promise to ourselves which we keep each time we are willing to concede (to paraphrase Einstein) that the more we learn, the more we realise how little we can possibly ever know. 

To be a lifelong learner, therefore, takes humility: to concede that my 'self' of yesterday was wrong, in the face of information I might have acquired today. And that this doesn't stem from fickleness, but honesty and self-reflexivity, both of which can sometimes feel cripplingly overwhelming. But can there be any other way, if one is to respond to the "call of Truth" Gandhi speaks of? We need, if we are to "be the change we want to see" (relax: it doesn't matter if he said it in quite these words, like the coffee mugs you've undoubtedly seen this quotation on), to start by reclaiming the power of uncertainty and revelling in everything we do not know today, with the (sometimes kept; sometimes deferred) intention to learn it tomorrow, and perhaps change our minds about why we do what we do along the way. Done honestly, and with everything we've got, I suspect this would make Bapu smile.   

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