Learning and unlearning

Recently I read this quote from professor Leonard Sweet:  “If ministers are not constantly learning and unlearning, they are becoming less and less qualified to serve.”  Sweet is on to something.  I am an advocate for lifelong learning because there is always something new to learn—fresh insights, new information, and additional skills. 

Lifelong “unlearning” is another thing entirely. There is much research being done on how the brain operates, but I have not come across anything that says that we need to purge old data from our mental database in order to add new information.  In reality, lifelong unlearning is not so much getting rid of old data but ridding ourselves of old ways of thinking, acting, and being.

So where do we start in the “unlearning” process?  What should be unlearned?

First, I need to unlearn whatever harms me.  As we get older, we realize that we will be better off if we change some ingrained habits about diet, exercise, and rest.  There are things that were a staple of my diet when I was younger—fried foods, for example—that are now only included on very special occasions.

Second, I need to unlearn whatever keeps me from learning something new.  At one point in my life, I thought that there was very little that I could learn from those of another faith perspective, especially high church Anglicans and Roman Catholics.  In tossing this old paradigm out the window, I have opened my eyes to rich traditions related to the use of scripture in worship and new (to me) spiritual practices.

Third, I need to unlearn whatever keeps me from growing.  For example, although my parents would never have been labeled as racists, I did not sit at table with African-Americans until I was in college.  When I began to engage people of other races, I realized that there was an ingrained prejudice that was keeping me from learning about the majority of the world’s people.  Once I confessed that sin, my eyes were opened to learn from the experiences of others.

Fourth, I need to unlearn whatever keeps me from accepting new challenges.  Some limits we set for ourselves while other limits are imposed on us by others—parents, friends, work peers, and society.  When let others decide our capabilities or tell ourselves that we are incompetent, we have limited our potential.  Once we break the limiting bonds, our eyes are open to new possibilities.

What are the things you need to unlearn in order to be healthier, to be more knowledgeable, and to seize new opportunities?


Ircel Harrison

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Ircel Harrison is Coaching Coordinator for Pinnacle Leadership Associates and is Associate Professor of Ministry Praxis at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. He blogs at www.barnabasfile.blogspot.com. His Twitter feed is @ircel.

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