I have always been rather irritated1 by the quote attributed to Alvin Toeffler. It was used in the start of the History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education MOOC. The participants are all supposed to be life long unlearners. Cute, pithy, tweetable but I fundamentally disagree with what the words mean. First, the quote-
The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.
I went wandering to find more about Toeffler and the quote. Know thy enemy2 and all that. The book most often associated with the quote is Future Shock.
I find only two uses of the word “illiterate” in Future Shock. I also found a full PDF copy online that returned the same information. I won’t link to it here but you could find it without much issue. I’m amazed what I find by adding filetype:pdf to my Google searches.
He does quote Gerjuoy who says something close, but better and harder to quote.
Psychologist Herbert Gerjuoy of the Human Resources Research Organization phrases
it simply: “The new education must teach the individual how to classify and reclassify
information, how to evaluate its veracity, how to change categories when necessary, how to
move from the concrete to the abstract and back, how to look at problems from a new
direction—how to teach himself. Tomorrow’s illiterate will not be the man who can’t read; he
will be the man who has not learned how to learn. (emphasis mine)”
Toffler does say.
By instructing students how to learn, unlearn and relearn, a powerful new dimension can be added to education.
In the end, it doesn’t matter much who said it. It is clearly very popular.
I think the quote would be better as –
The illiterate of the 21st century3 will
notbe those who cannot read and write, butthose who cannot keep learning , unlearn, and relearn.
I disagree fundamentally that you can “unlearn” anything. I’d make a bunch of dictionary references but most of them break down to the idea of “intentionally forgetting” something, of discarding the previous learning. Let’s assume it is possible to intentionally forget something.4 I tried to come up with any things I’d unlearned but found that with everything I could think of the information and ideas remained but I either reconsidered, augmented/extended, or re-contextualized. I didn’t forget the previous information/behavior, I built on it. More importantly, I don’t want to forget.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not adverse to changing positions but I see it as evolution. Ancestors are important and seeing the pattern of change over time helps you understand all sorts of things. Unlearning feels too much like a modular exchange, a mechanical rather than organic process. Mike Caulfield put it well referencing Kahneman (maybe).
— Mike Caulfield (@holden) January 27, 2014
You can see some attempts to have this conversation on Twitter with a number of kind, patient souls. Most of what people suggested as “unlearning” was what I’d call learning (said early on by Jen)
Trying to think of an example of literal "unlearning" that has to go on as precursor to taking on new learning. Maybe too literal #FutureEd
— Tom Woodward (@twoodwar) January 27, 2014
1 Irrationally? Maybe.
3 and I’m not really sure about this whole first part but . . . I have to keep some context I guess. The seemingly implicit idea that actual illiteracy won’t matter is fundamentally wrong. You will be illiterate in the 21st century if you can’t read. We have not solved that problem.
4 Quick, forget about something.