Wouldn’t it be regrettable if an important new approach to learning didn’t include an understanding of the epidemic-level barriers to learning itself?
Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has become involved in a program called the Big History Project, which has introduced a new approach to teaching history in hundreds of American high schools. This new approach establishes cognitive connections across varied subjects—from cosmology to archeology to globalization—so that students can acquire, as the program’s developer David Christian says, a “much better sense of the underlying unity of modern knowledge.”
The program challenges students to “synthesize complex information.” The aim is to enhance mental prowess of students and help them to appreciate more fully the interdependence of all life.
This is awesome! Seeing the world with more insight is vitally important. Perhaps the Big History Project can also inspire students to see themselves as well as the world more objectively. I hope the program’s developers incorporate depth psychology into the curriculum. Why? Because the subject exposes the roots of an extremely important concern of educational experts, namely the reasons why many children and adults are such poor students or learners.
For the most part, I’m not writing here about learning disabilities. Such disabilities are a group of disorders—such as dyslexia, auditory and visual processing disorders, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder—which affect the brain’s ability to assimilate and retain information and knowledge. Rather, I’m discussing obstacles to learning that occur among a wider population of students. Such obstacles include boredom, procrastination, lack of organization, and various mental or emotional blocks. These tend to be psychological problems, not failures of intelligence. Though these problems are often interrelated, I will for simplicity’s sake look at them one by one.
Boredom has many psychological facets (read, “The Dreary Distress of Boredom”). Students afflicted with it on a daily basis are experiencing a negative state of resistance. In their minds, the outer world, including their classroom experience, is offering them little of interest. They’re failing to see, however, that their inner experiences are overriding their ability to extract satisfaction or pleasure from learning opportunities. All they feel is the boredom.
From where does such boredom arise? One common negative emotion in the human psyche consists of the unconscious readiness or willingness to feel that life is somehow refusing us its benefits and pleasures. Struggling learners can feel, quite irrationality, that they’re victims of such privation. This negative emotion is first encountered by infants and toddlers when, in their subjective judgment, they feel their mother is withholding attention or food. Weaning is usually experienced through feelings of deprivation and refusal. Children screaming in toy stores display the fury that lurks behind the feeling of being refused.
Bored children sitting in the classroom are in conflict: Consciously, they would like very much to feel excited by their experience, yet, unconsciously, they remain emotionally attached to the old familiar impression of being refused. As they see it, their teachers offer only bland food they dislike or bad food they spit out. When bored students begin to understand this unconscious dynamic and see the suffering and self-defeat inherent in it, they begin to absorb rather than block out the knowledge that comes their way.
Procrastination is another common learning problem. (Read more about it here.) Students who procrastinate fail to keep pace with the learning process and their performance suffers. To understand the origins of the problem, we have to fathom the meaning and significance of inner passivity. (I write extensively about inner passivity in my books and at this website.) In the main, inner passivity is an experience of weakness that’s often unconscious. It’s an inner default position in our psyche through which, in large measure, we experience ourselves and the world. The weakness persists as a form of identification (or as an emotional attachment) until we begin to see it more objectively or clinically, at which point we can liberate ourselves from it.
When harboring unresolved inner passivity, we constantly stumble into painful experiences of it. Procrastination is one such experience. Procrastination is a pronounced sense of weakness. Something important needs doing, yet we keep putting it off. We know we’d feel better if we did it, yet still we delay. This paralysis is a direct and painful experience of inner passivity. Seeing procrastination in this insightful manner greatly helps us to overcome it.
The next hindrance to learning, lack of organization, also has its roots in inner passivity. Students can be unconsciously willing to tolerate disorder, or even to produce it, because doing so triggers their emotional attachment to inner passivity. In other words, they produce the effect of being overwhelmed—along with feeling bewildered and confused—because they’re compelled to experience repeatedly their unresolved resonance with inner passivity. All of us, at an unconscious level, recycle and replay unresolved negative emotions such as feeling refused, deprived, helpless, criticized, rejected, and unworthy.
When a student fails to organize appropriately, he or she is likely to feel more burdened by the demands of schoolwork. Progress in learning is going to be impeded. When students are able to see the unconscious intent or motivation behind their disorganization—namely their unconscious willingness to continue to experience themselves through some form of weakness—they see clearly see the unintentional self-sabotage. Their intelligence is now enhanced. Through the process of seeing such weakness objectively, with clear knowledge of the dynamics at play, they’re empowered to overcome it.
Various other mental and emotional blocks are common. Some students have passive-aggressive resistance to authority figures, and teachers represent such authority. Students can feel that to tackle their course work is to submit to the will of the teacher. (They might have this issue with one or both parents.)
Struggling learners can also feel that the course work in itself is forcing them to comply with arbitrary standards or rules, and hence they resist passive-aggressively, which can involve being disorganized, forgetting, a focus on insignificant details, and errors in judgment. (Read, “Overcoming a Type of Resistance to Studying.”)
Learning is a process of achievement and empowerment. When students experience this process as an obligation or unpleasant requirement of life, they block the ability to derive pleasure from their effort. They may also harbor cynicism concerning the value of learning. This negative attitude can easily be picked up from a cynical parent. Students would benefit greatly if their teachers were offering them insights into such psychological dynamics.
Reading blocks, problems with comprehension, and even illiteracy can be traced to inner passivity. Reading and comprehension are forms of personal empowerment. An illiterate person can experience inner passivity through his or her inability to grasp meaning from words and sentences. They can’t grasp hold of the power that reading comprehension bestows. Instead, they remain stuck in the painful passivity of incomprehension.
Some students have an unconscious willingness to perform poorly. They can be acting out an emotional attachment to being a disappointment to themselves and others. This acting-out activates the inner critic, and triggers the major conflict in their psyche between inner aggression and inner passivity. Such students are usually the unconscious copycats of the same inner conflicts that plague their parents.
One expert said the challenge of learning “is influenced by such factors as a struggling learner’s ability to organize, initiate, monitor, and sustain activities.” It’s easy to see how inner passivity can be the primary saboteur in the all-important quest to acquire new knowledge. It’s also easy to see how important it is to possess this knowledge from depth psychology.
My latest book has just been published. It’s titled, Our Deadly Flaw: Healing the Inner Conflict that Cripples Us and Subverts Society (2022), and it’s available here in paperback (315 pages) or as an e-book.