Understanding takes more than just knowing. To really know and understand one has to prepare to unlearn everything one has ever thought of knowing—to surrender to the great unknowing. What we think we know we usually learned through someone else’s knowing experience. To unlearn is to actively choose to see through once own eyes, to hear through once own ears, to connect through once own senses, instincts and feelings. Most of us know how to learn but only few choose to unlearn for the sake of deeper understanding through not knowing. Real knowing and understanding is freedom which cannot be acquired without the described process of full surrender.
Art is a simultaneously contemplative and sense-provoking experience that has the ability to disarm us from binding theoretical knowledge to an understanding and knowledge of a more transcendental nature. It can help us surpass the boundaries of our physical reality, freeing us to the gladsome triple play of Light, Love and Life:
I was taught
to trust only what I see.
All else is illusory.
The only thing that matters,
the only truth,
All else is fantasy.
there’s so much to unlearn.
In fleeting moments of insight,
of dazzling light
before Doubt sets back in,
to unwind my heart and mind
from the tenterhooks of fear.
That the limitations of boundaried reality
There’s a knowing so much greater
than what my eyes can see,
or my brain can grasp.
None of the things
that occupy my thoughts
Not my financial worries,
or my health scare,
or the loneliness that clings
to me like a second skin.
They’re merely the movement of life
nudging me towards light.
Love is the only Truth.
The only thing that matters.
All else is Ego’s whimsy.
I will argue in this essay that education and schooling in their traditional sense of meaning are approaching an end; that much of learning will be replaced instead by our capacity to unlearn and to contemplate the nature of knowledge. In the post-postmodern existence where each and every thing is connected to each other thing, there simply are too many meanings to be handled by the human comprehension. These layered multiple meanings create a chaos of information that is impossible to control in the traditional sense of organizing and categorizing. Other means of taking grasp and hold of the world must be provided or else the humankind will develop an ever-deepening state of anxiety and a genuine hate towards learning and towards educating its future generations.
I will also argue that there are more indirect ways of confronting this chaos of information, ways that provide a detour to naming things that constantly escape labels— ways that operate more in the plain of intuition, feeling and experience. Art can provide such means through which we can perceive the chaos differently, without having to try to make conscious sense of it, but rather by letting it flow through our personalities creating its own meanings that go beyond any existing language or literal sense.
I further advocate the stance that instead of just reading, writing and lecturing we should take the words literally ”into our hands,” and take them into active use in our lives, in a way or another, and teach more in way of the example of our own living and being. Perfect, whole or complete are divine concepts that remain totally out of reach until we dismantle and deconstruct the knowledge of others learned in schools and institutions, to find out about its essence in the holiness and messiness of our own lives. That shall never really happen unless we return to our original state of innocence and not knowing. For those wanting to teach it is extremely unwise to stop being a curious student, to stop wanting to learn by firsthand discover, to stop posing questions. Only in the child-like realization that there are an infinite number of meanings and understandings of those meanings, and that we know nearly nothing of all those, are we really wise and worthy of becoming teachers of others.
Originality, creativity and innovation are stressed as key concepts in strengthening overall competitiveness in our knowledge and economic wealth based Western societies. These words have become property of industrial/research policies, commercial agreements and political strategies—being something fashionable and easy to sell to people, in hopes of enhancing profits of all kinds. They are major factors from the perspective of developing personal and occupational skills as well as entrepreneurial and social skills, and from the perspective of social well-being. The debate goes on and on about how we could best create an environment that fosters the emergence of new ideas.
The post-postmodern society seems to have taken a role from where it sees necessary to forcefully highlight the significance of these concepts in the lives of all people of different ages. It seems as if we are unable to just recognize them as typically human traits and therefore the most natural path to well-being and high quality living that already is in reach of each and every one of us, and requires no special enforcement other than the choice made by each individual: to get interested and to act upon those interests!
In this time of virtual realities, networking and real-time communications it is easy to get the information about any time, thing, person or place the world has ever known or produced. Nokia boasts in their slogan that it is “Connecting People,” but have we actually become too impregnated by all our knowledge and networks to really come face-to-face and establish vivid personalized connections? This requires stopping by for longer than just to catch a social media status update: it requires a powerful imagination to bring us to perceiving The Other’s whole reality—and some identifying skills, at least.
Mark Slouka (2009) writes about the growing need of arts professionals to contort their thinking and mission to fit into a world dictated by economic powers. Connections between the arts, commercial success, and economic growth are frequently being made to preserve the status of also arts education. Finland’s system of nationwide government-supported music schools has long held a respected status among music educators all around the world, yet the mentioned business jargon was clearly audible when I interviewed a group of Finnish music education professionals operating within the third Millennium reality. One principal stated: “Creativity is the factor we must hold unto and this must stay also in the parliament’s objectives; it’s a necessary factor for the Finnish society to prosper also in the future” (Ollila, 2008, p. 148.) But the principals were also worried that the value of arts education is slipping solely into an instrumental one. Their concerns are valid the interview revealed: Subjects the likes of “entrepreneurship in music” have been added to the curriculums of professional musician training, and the calls of music business are better and louder heard and responded to all over when designing future curriculums. The overall mission of the Finnish music schools is also altering to better respond to societal needs. The principal of Kuopio Conservatory of Music pointed out that “the aging of the population, for example, and the growing needs of certain special groups and the needs of the immigrant population, and the local needs especially in bigger cities and rapidly growing towns, are forcing the music schools to take a more active role in society than before” (Ollila, 2008, p. 148.) These new sectors are all interested in music related activities, and often the music schools are the only ones in a certain area to provide them, so it is seen as their responsibility to respond to the needs as much as possible.
Mark Slouka (2009) sums up the trend reminding that companies and organizations can only remain competitive and cutting edge by attracting individuals who can think creatively, that the future economy will be driven by the ‘creative class’ and students trained in the arts can become better problem solvers in business and the natural sciences. I experienced the governmental investments in the creative sector first hand, holding the foreign ministry position of Advisor for Cultural Affairs for a while: the investments to support the so-called “creative economy” are wide indeed, at least in the case of one small Nordic country competing in the wider global market. What was missing from the discourse though was what Slouka (2009) also brings up in his article: another system of value, one finding internal value in arts education, value that might just as well serve a nation, or wider global platforms.
Both Maxine Greene (1978) and Mark Slouka (2009) argue in favor of a more humane approach to laying foundations for a democratic society. According to the two deeper awareness brings about deeper connections and therefore supports a more creative stance in life—exactly what many governments would like to see happen in order to bring about greater economic prosperity. But as Slouka (2009) emphasizes, there are no civic indicators to measure the success in humanity, at least not indicators similar to those used in the world governed by economic concerns. Similarly, the work of the humanities doesn’t reveal itself within the typical three- or five-year cycle—the humanities work on a fifty-year cycle, or a hundred-year cycle (ibid.)
The Indian-born writer, philosopher and spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti places a challenge in his classic work Freedom From The Known (1969): “Try it and see what actually takes place when you observe the tree with all your being, with the totality of your energy. In that intensity you will find that there is no observer at all; there is only attention” (p. 90.) Attention leads to caring, I deduce: In a world where we have more time to pay attention and observe in peace, there is also more caring and more empathizing, and thus more functional democracies. There is always that space, that otherness between us and what we are trying to approach, and in the attention we become more aware.
Maxine Greene (1978) and Mark Slouka (2009) agree: in holding attention we become more aware of how and why we want to connect; also more aware and willing to admit why our stance might as well be the “wrong one;” more aware that the only certainty is our uncertainty of everything. This realization builds tolerance in the face of complexity, something essential in today’s multi-layered reality. But this kind of understanding can only stem from silence, from being still, from willingness to come to a halt, and from an attitude of observance.
Where exactly do we point at when talking about internal value in arts education? Maxine Greene (1978) discusses an important factor separating the value of arts education per se from an approach that is concerned mainly in instrumental outcomes of aesthetic education: “in the aesthetic experience, the mundane world must be bracketed out or in some sense distanced, so that the reader, listener, or beholder can enter the aesthetic space in which the work of art exists” (p. 164.) Bracket out, distance, enter—these are verbs I wish to emphasize from Greene’s line of thinking. The world of economic value is fast-paced and very direct in its concerns. It does not have much time for stepping aside or to reflecting. Its working space is here and now, and it is constantly evolving. The aesthetic-spiritual realm remains different. It requires distancing ourselves from the mundane in order to find an even more direct contact with the world—and significance through intersubjectivity. This kind of thinking is risky for the economic planner because his success depends on staying alert in the changing markets, depends on others’ market decisions as well. The success in humanity on the other hand depends only on how we understand ourselves and empathize with others—to challenge our beliefs, and to strive for greater reason and clarity (Slouka, 2009.)
Aesthetic education creates a possibility for exactly these, and should therefore be taught in all pedagogic contexts according to Maxine Greene. Greene (1978) writes: “…aesthetic experiences provide a ground for the questioning that launches sense-making and understanding of what it is to exist in a world” (p. 166.) This in exchange leads to a higher consciousness from where the “situated person, conscious of his or her freedom, can move onwards to empirical study, analytic study, or quantitative study of all kinds” (p. 166.) Interpreting Maxine Greene’s ideas, it can also diminish our vocational-economic obsessions that—if being the only governing force in a society or community—will eventually lead to its bankruptcy because there is no creative force extant without real connections. We desperately need these original creative connections—and the distancing of ourselves from the surface value of things—to mirror our own thinking and being against these phenomena, to find value in the process of discovering how we belong.
Maxine Greene (2001) then points us to our “ongoing efforts to create meanings, efforts going beyond the cognitive, to include intuition, imagination, feeling, perception—all the acts of consciousness, perhaps especially where the arts are concerned” (p. 193.) Not knowing would bring us closer to a type of innocence that is the key to this different kind of learning and understanding, but it would also make us useless in the eyes of the majority. Do we then dare to be useless?
This is precisely what Thomas Merton asked in his 1961 essay “The Rain and the Rhinoceros,” whilst celebrating the “gratuity and meaninglessness” of the natural wonder called ’rain’ (Merton, 1961/1966, p. 9.) Merton devotes a whole lot of time in the essay to describing his unique experience listening to drops of rain falling down from the sky:
… I listen, because it reminds me again and again that the whole world runs by rhythms I have not yet learned to recognize, rhythms that are not those of the engineer. I came up here from the monastery last night, sloshing through the cornfield, said Vespers, and put some oatmeal on the Coleman stove for supper. It boiled over while I was listening to the rain and toasting a piece of bread at the log fire. The night became very dark. The rain surrounded the whole cabin with its enormous virginal myth, a whole world of meaning, of secrecy, of silence, of rumor. Think of it: all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody, drenching the thick mulch of dead leaves, soaking the trees, filling the gullies and crannies of the wood with water, washing out the places where men have stripped the hillside! What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone, in the forest, at night, cherished by this wonderful, unintelligible, perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world, the talk that rain makes by itself all over the ridges, and the talk of the watercourses everywhere in the hollows!
Merton, like Henry David Thoreau, and others longing for the ‘original connection’ with nature, chose the path into the woods, sauntering freely with mud in their boots, feeling excitement that only can come from spending solitary time with something that animates and has a great personal value and/or significance. It is not a matter of deciding whether we like something or not, whether we find something beautiful or not, but rather finding out what we have to come in contact with in order to find fulfillment.
Eloise Klein Healy (2002) describes this transformative experience in her poem “You Must Change Your Life”: Life in the city is cleansed of the animal / and you must go to the trees, the poem urges, relying on the wisdom of a Nicaraguan legend and referring to the perfected, sterile conditions of our contemporary lives. The poem encourages us to listen beyond our first knowledge. In order for this to happen we need to be able to tune in to those harder-to-reach frequencies. Maxine Greene (2001) refers to Jean Paul Sartre’s notion of art as “an act of confidence in the freedom of human beings” (p. 198.) I find it easy to join Sartre and Greene in believing that such an act indeed can create a renewed confidence in the “human(e) connection” and bring about, at least occasionally, the much needed shift in perception.
James Joyce’s literary alter ego Stephen Dedalus is described in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) as being a child with heightened sensitivity towards all sounds around him. Words like SUCK, KISS and DRIZZLE and the sound of cricket balls— PICK, PACK, POCK, PUCK—constantly fed his imagination. Eventually these mental images were turned into new words, new meanings, and thereafter into a very artistic language loaded with personal connectedness. One wonders if in today’s very loud world this kind of sensitivity is even possible for those possessing this amazing gift of perception and dissection. Do we have the time/are we really equipped to recognizing talents like that of Stephen Dedalus’ amidst our busy schedules and demands for high productivity? Have we the patience required to pay attention, to support, to provide the right kind of stimuli and give encouragement? This is worth contemplating, at least.
Experiential learning is a laborious way to learn and to teach, one might argue. I fully agree, but we really have no choice in the 21st century than to dismantle educational hierarchies that are restrictive, and recognize that verbal expressions grounded in abstraction can never represent the whole of human experience and therefore cannot be the only mean around which teaching should be constructed. Real answers and real advice can only come about through lived experience.
And the role of the teacher in this context? “He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher”, writes Walt Whitman (1855/1995, p. 975.) The teacher, too, must eventually make himself useless. We have to let others challenge us. This applies to students as well as teachers. Teaching in this context involves risk-taking of highest degree, warns Parker Palmer (2008.) But if we are ready to leave the podiums of our egos for a while and feel what it is really like to be an equal—ready to take the questions as they come, ready to confront the paradoxes of the human existence and experience—then we might be surprised of the rewards that will eventually follow. A teacher needs, first and foremost, to be able to step aside once a new self has budded. We are not here to pass on what we know, but to pass on what we feel should be discovered, to support those miraculous moments of awakening. “We want our desires to be contagious,” in words of Maxine Greene (2001, p. 198.)
The sense of belonging, or being a part of, that opens through this contemplation and dialogue is truly a mystical one: it is as though we flow alongside the world, and all our knowing and all our understanding comes from within. There is no need for struggle, loneliness or any hollow emptiness.
The title of this essay derives from a 2004/2005 Mary Oliver poem “What Is There Beyond Knowing.” The poem compresses the answer to its very question into a single word: A Moment. Whatever the connections we make, whatever the ‘old’ affecting our today, or the ‘new’ making its way into existence through our hands, is small compared to what remains forever beyond our knowing. The human fate is indeed a cruel one: we have a consciousness that demands connections and creation, but mostly we find ourselves just standing in the dark field of uncertainty and confusion. We really have no other names for things than those we have already learned. Yet, they seem insufficient in many ways and require further clarification.
Mary Oliver’s poem encourages us to unlearn and to face the world with bold new openness: to drifting forward with no other seeming aim than coming into contact with as many experiences as possible, flowers and weeds alike—and to being grateful for this one-time-only opportunity. The difficulty lies in avoiding the direct naming and immediate apprehension of these experiences until we have fully explored them and fully connected with them—letting them breathe themselves naturally into the core of our being. Only information acquired this way can lead towards more enlightened understanding. Our ability to play with, and to let go of what we are trying to teach to others, will be constantly tested and challenged by those who come to us for meaningful dialogue and learning. This together is our opportunity to discovering a second chance for divine innocence—innocence in the learning context representing necessary dependence on The Other—and always opposing lack of knowledge or understanding:
What I know
I could put into a pack
as if it were bread and cheese, and carry it
on one shoulder,
important and honorable, but so small!
While everything else continues, unexplained
and unexplainable. How wonderful it is
to follow a thought quietly
to its logical end.
I have done this a few times.
But mostly I just stand in the dark field,
in the middle of the world, breathing
in and out. Life so far doesn’t have any other name
but breath and light, wind and rain.
If there’s a temple, I haven’t found it yet.
I simply go on drifting, in the heaven of the grass
and the weeds.
(Oliver, 2004/2005, pp. 20-21.)
Brav, J.: The Unlearning (2022). https://mypoeticside.com/show-poem-151218
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Joyce, J. (1916/1964). A portrait of the artist as a young man. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
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Whitman, W. (1885/1995). Song of myself. In The Norton anthology of American literature. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, pp. 936-978.