Notes from Ransom Hall: A Higher Ed Blog

Learning, Unlearning and Relearning in the Year 2020

Sean Decatur
August 31, 2020

Watch the virtual Opening Convocation that was broadcast live on August 30, 2020 (President Decatur’s remarks begin at 2:50).

To the class of 2024: Welcome to the Hill, this special place in central Ohio that will soon feel like home. This is a site with a rich history, stretching from the Hopewell and Adena societies which built extensive trade networks and urban structures throughout Ohio long before Europeans arrived, to the vibrant community of students, faculty and staff from around the country and around the world that we find here today. Here you will be pushed hard to think, to question, to research, to read and to write, all with astonishing clarity; you will form friendships that will last a lifetime; and in four years you will be prepared for a lifetime of success once you leave this Hill.

By every measure, this academic year will be unique. We are still in the midst of a global pandemic that has upended our personal, academic and professional activities. Face coverings are now regular parts of our daily lives, and we are learning to build connections and community amid physical distancing. This year, we will embrace the concept of “Learning, Unlearning and Relearning” as a theme for our academic year, a thread running through speakers, programs, performances and events.

What is “learning”?

The human brain is made of over 100 billion neurons with about 100 trillion connections. The structure and function of these connections — the architecture of the brain and the efficiency of communication between neurons — are shaped by our experiences. This is one way to describe the phenomenon of “learning” — experiences of the world shape the physical features of the brain, and in this way become a part of us.

Sometimes learning is intentional: We set out to practice a skill, whether hitting a baseball, playing guitar, or speaking a language, and each cycle practicing that activity strengthens a set of connections in the brain. Sometimes learning is unintentional: We experience traumatic events with fear and pain so intense that they become encoded in our brain, changing our physiology; or we passively take in the world around us, with observations that may escape our conscious notice nonetheless influencing the connections in our brain. And there are critical moments when we must unlearn: to challenge ourselves with new experiences or concepts, to do things differently, to push our brain to repair itself from the impact of trauma.

Another way to think of learning, and the types of connections shaped in the brain, is in terms of processing time. The minimal length of time required for the human mind to process information from an image is 13 milliseconds. How fast is 13 milliseconds? A blink of an eye takes 100 milliseconds; a standard camera shutter motion takes 125 milliseconds; the flap of a hummingbird wing takes 80 milliseconds.

As a culture we are somewhat obsessed with speed of thinking and information processing: trivia games measure one’s ability to recall information quickly; speed is still valued in primary school arithmetic and spelling drills; we talk about innovation being driven by “clock speed,” the ability to process faster than competitors.

Yet psychologists have also studied the weaknesses in making fast judgments or quick conclusions. The pioneering work by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, later summarized in Kahneman’s best selling book “Thinking Fast and Slow,” demonstrated that the human mind makes quick judgments by relying on heuristics that lead to cognitive biases; and as a result we reach conclusions that are deeply flawed. We make snap assessments of probability that defy logical, reasonable conclusions from statistics, and we let bias and stereotype — especially those arising from the cultural context in which we are embedded — to frame and shape our instantaneous judgments. This is often physically encoded in our brains: We have made our brain connections and communication more efficient by encoding unintentional, often unconscious observation. Cultural bias and stereotype literally become a physical part of us.

There are certainly moments when the fast-thinking systems of our brains serve us well: our movement (whether walking, driving a car or riding a bicycle), our ability to speak, and our ability to take direction from written signs or instructions, are all generally governed by subconscious near-instantaneous decision-making that is sharpened and refined by a great deal of practice and repetition. These systems are responsible not just for our survival, but more profoundly for at least part of what it means to be human.

Yet we witness many examples of where our fast thinking leads us astray, and where our collective dependence on flawed instantaneous judgment results in individual and social harm, where action directed by heuristics and bias leads to the perpetuation of stereotype and the reification of injustice.  We are all burdened by our immersion in a culture that has been shaped by legacies of deeply entrenched bias; where the heuristics used to make fast decisions have been shaped by very real phenomena of racism, sexism and other systemic ills. Fast-thinking underlies the snap judgment that a Black teenager ringing the doorbell is a potential threat worthy of a call to the police, and not a young person looking for help. 

These are not just abstract or distant incidents, but rather phenomenon we can observe much closer to home; for even within our own communities, among a tight-knit group that often considers itself a family, fast-thinking directed by cultural and cognitive bias can lead to assumptions, judgments and even actions that strain and disrupt the community fabric.

Indeed, while fast-thinking is often associated with the quick action needed for survival, recent experience demonstrates the exact opposite — fast-thinking can undermine our ability to cope effectively with crisis. The year 2020 has shown that we live in a context governed by volatility, uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity.  Circumstances change quickly and unexpectedly; the future is clouded by uncertainty; solutions to problems are often ambiguous, and involve integration of complex, multidisciplinary concepts. Fast-thinking breaks down under these circumstances. When we have not experienced life in a pandemic, we cannot rely on our fast-thinking — actions based on heuristic analysis of cues around us — to guide our behavior or our survival.

Survival in this context depends on our slow-thinking: the ability to go deeper than the 13-millisecond observation when processing information, to expand beyond the immediate heuristic into more complex problem-solving analysis, to expand your cultural context to include voices and perspectives beyond your own experience.

We have come together at Kenyon primarily to focus on our slow-thinking, to engage in more than simple information processing and quick reaction. We are here to challenge assumptions, to push ourselves to take in new experiences, to integrate complex ideas.

Slow-thinking is typically not just learning. Slow-thinking often begins with unlearning. Looking at the world in a different way — taking in new perspectives, working to resolve contradictory information, just taking time to process our thoughts and take measure of the act of thinking itself — all of these allow us to reshape the brain physically, to dismantle neurological connections and build new ones. Learning alone is not enough; we must complement learning with unlearning and relearning.

Hearing is fast, even hearing to extract information is fast, but listening is slow. An excellent liberal arts education should prepare you to move beyond sharpening your skills to hear information in order to have a quick response and action, but rather to listen carefully (and slowly) to develop a deep understanding.

Reaction with emotion is fast, but reaction with empathy — understanding of the experiences of others — is slow. An excellent liberal arts education, enriched by immersion in great literature and art from a wide range of cultural perspectives, helps you to move toward a more empathetic response.

Fast-thinking rooted in confidence in one’s own righteousness results in quick judgments of the failures of others. An excellent liberal arts education empowers us with the courage to change things that are unjust while practicing graciousness toward those who make mistakes.

In many ways, circumstances of the year 2020 have naturally pushed us toward slower thinking. Quarantine and physical distancing have disrupted our normal ways of life. The deaths of Black men and women, painfully captured on video and replayed on social media, have laid bare the systemic injustices that are ingrained in our society. And anxiety induced by the pandemic, economic dislocation, and the social upheaval, as well as the trauma of loss of friends and family, have taken a physical toll on our brains and bodies. As we set out on the school year, we have a great deal of unlearning to do: unlearning patterns of our own daily activity, unlearning social inscribed systemic injustice, unlearning the impact of trauma.

Not all of this learning, unlearning and relearning will take place in the classroom, or be emphasized in events on campus, or even readily identified as work. Indeed, one of the benefits of education at Kenyon is that learning, unlearning and relearning at times can be — and will be — delivered in the form of joy, laughter and satisfying personal connection. Your next four years at Kenyon will be characterized by what Toni Morrison described as “sweet, crazy conversations full of half sentences, daydreams and misunderstandings more thrilling than understanding could ever be,” moments of love and joy that will also play a role in shaping your brain architecture and function. Walking in the BFEC, enjoying the beauty of the world as seen from this hill in Gambier; listening to music not only with your ears but with your heart and whole body, shaking with joy and emotion; laughing with friends so hard that you forget what made you laugh in the first place, but forever connect the feelings of joy to those people at this time. All of these are part of the process of learning as well, and you will experience all of these in the next four years.

This will be an academic year like no other. Our desire to learn (and unlearn) has brought us together here at Kenyon. But together we will also meet the challenges of our time with both courage and grace; we will support each other through pain and sorrow; we will find moments of joy and laughter. And I am looking forward to sharing this adventure with you.