As we continue our conversation about the aims of education in my composition course this semester, we’ve been talking about this idea of not learning–not the inability to learn or the lack of opportunity, but the willful refusal to learn, to the point where it actually takes a good deal of work. My hope is to raise a critical awareness with the students of how our educational experiences change us–for better of for worse. There’s really no better piece that I’ve found than Herbert Kohl’s “I Won’t Learn from You” to kick this conversation off. Kohl writes at length on how he has observed in himself and in people he has met through his teaching career a concerted effort to not learn certain things–and for a variety of sound reasons. He recounts his own willful desire to not learn to speak Yiddish as a child–even though it took tremendous effort, being essentially immersed in a Yiddish speaking environment. Kohl’s mother could not speak Yiddish, so being party to a conversation in Yiddish meant being party to a conversation that excluded his mother. Out of loyalty and solidarity with his mother, he made up his mind as a child to not learn to speak Yiddish. This was a decision he would regret later in his life.

…the only sane alternative to not-learning is the acknowledgment and direct confrontation of oppression–social, sexual, and econmomic–both in school and in society. (Kohl)

Kohl goes on to tell the stories of several students he knew who demonstrated this willful desire to not learn and implemented a number of ingenious strategies to fend off teachers, lessons, and chance learning at all costs. Most of these stories had unhappy endings. Kohl argues that this willful refusal to learn something is a dysfunctional and ultimately destructive response to a schooling that challenges one’s sense of identity and one’s fundamental values to the breaking point. Not learning is a subversive tactic designed to resist what is perceived as an oppressive force. As an alternative, Kohl argues that we diffuse possible oppressive schooling through the power of critical dialogue–bringing the conversations to the surface and addressing them head on. (I guess that’s what I’m trying to do in my course this semester.)

Ok, so I had students work with the Kohl essay–illustrating scenes from it, talking about the key points, etc. We began forging connections to our own experiences, considering what we’ve willfully refused to learn in our past and why.

As a bridge between this idea of refusing to learn some things and the idea of an openness to learn or revise one’s thinking, we screened the short film Binta and the Great Idea –an academy award nominated film that works on so many levels and fits perfectly into discussion we’ve been having. Check it out, if you’d like. (It’s got real transformative power, so be careful.)

I think this film is amazing on so many levels. I get a little choked up in class throughout the film, but especially at the end when the great idea is revealed. This is par for the course, but what bothers me most is my being so very moved by a film like this one time and time again while many of my students sit there seemingly untouched in anyway–uninterested, bored, apathetic (but this is a post/rant for another time). I wonder, though, if they are refusing to learn something I am trying to teach them?

Is teaching by its very nature an oppressive act? Paulo Freire might argue so; John Holt whom I am reading currently implies as much when he talks about children who resist, turn off, run away when they sense that you are teaching them, but love learning. How then do we get to the learning without the teaching? Ahh, it’s a dance for sure. We’ll see where it takes us…