31 March 1998
What is the process opposite to learning? The word that most obviously comes to mind is forgetting. We learn things, then sometimes we forget what we have learned. Just as you can deliberately set out to learn, or else find yourself learning something involuntarily, so you can forget as the result of a deliberately chosen course of action, or else you can forget involuntarily.
I remember hearing about a report by psychologists in Israel dealing with holocaust victims. The psychologists found that the best course of action was to help the victims forget their horrific experiences, or, failing that, find strategies to divert their minds from dwelling on these particular aspects of their past. (Previously, it was widely believed that you had to somehow 'come to terms' with what you had experienced.) Of course, you can't simply 'choose' to forget. But you can, depending on the circumstances, choose to do things that are liable to make it more likely that you will forget.
I wish my friend hadn't told me the very page number of the book on which lawman unexpectedly comes face-to-face with the fugitive. But there is something I can do. If I put the book aside and read some of the other novels I've been meaning to read, hopefully by the time I come back to the book in six month's time I shall almost certainly have forgotten the page number, and so will be able to appreciate the surprise just as the author intended.
Interestingly, there doesn't appear to be a word for actively resisting learning. One talks in metaphors, 'closing one's mind', 'stopping one's eyes and ears' (27 March). As my neighbour describes the video footage shown on the lunch time TV News, I clasp my hands over my ears and hum. I don't want to know. I heard on the radio that the multiple car pile-up on the motorway was horrific, I don't want to learn about the details, thank you very much. Or, to take another example, The gym master is determined to teach the schoolboy how to jump over the hobby horse, and the lazy lad is just as determined not to learn. The absence of a suitable word for this seems to be a mere accident of English usage (I don't know whether there is a word in any other language).
Knowledge, learning, spreads like a disease. You can't help getting it, sometimes we wish we could. When you do set out to learn, what you do is deliberately put yourself into a situation where you are most likely to 'catch' the disease. We choose the company of those persons who have got the disease, who can teach us. We learn from them by listening to what they say or imitating what they do. Or, if you don't want to catch the disease you take tablets, wear a face mask.
Following this line of thought, it occurs to me that the most important factor that has so far been neglected in our inquiry into learning is the social context. We learn as groups, not just as individuals. The phenomenon of deferring to experts or 'knowing a man who does' (27 March) is very relevant here. Now the emphasis on the individual has traditionally been a notable feature of philosophical inquiry into the nature of knowledge. Descartes' famous 'I think, therefore I am' encapsulates this perfectly. The question Descartes puts to us is what I know about the world outside me. For all I can prove for certain, all of you might be mere figments of my dream etc. etc.
Here then is just a clue no more than an unfulfilled promise at this stage how an inquiry into the phenomenon of learning might serve as the basis for a radical re-thinking of the traditional approaches to the theory of knowledge. I need to start looking at how groups of individuals learn together, how learning is embodied in social institutions, how through the process of learning the human infant first joins the social world, how the burden of learning is shared so that we can rely on one another rather than do everything ourselves and much more besides.
But I am going to stick with 'aspects of human ignorance' for a while. I have a hunch that there is a lot more here than we have looked at so far.