Marshall Alcorn’s Resistance to Learning, One

Marshal Alcorn’s Resistance to Learning: Overcoming the Desire-Not-to-Know in the Classroom is so dense and rich that I’ve decided it deserves multiple blog posts.  In the first, here, I am going to discuss the shape of the book and the introduction and then post about several of the five chapters individually.

In the introduction of the book, Alcorn explains the major premise on which his observation and stories from the classroom rest: that the relationship between evidence and reason, often works in reverse.  Using the work of Stanley Fish and Gary Olson and Lynn Worsham’s explanation of Fish, Alcorn writes,

“We do not observe the world and then believe what we see.  We have beliefs and we then observe or hallucinate the truth of our beliefs in observation of the world” (Alcorn 1).

As Alcorn points out, the relationship between evidence and the truths that we see in the world are not always connected and are not driven by reason alone.  Instead, he argues, we are driven much more by our emotions than is popularly believed and that we use our emotions to process thought, and therefore to learn.

Using the work of V. S. Ramachandran, Alcorn explains Ramachandran’s observation that many of his anosognosia patients plainly ignored evidence about their circumstances that was, or should have been, plainly visible to them:

“Trained as a medical doctor, he became interested in a medical condition called anosognosia in which an individual is unable to recognize that a part of their body is paralyzed.  Anosognosia, he writes, ‘is an extraordinary syndrome about which almost nothing is known.  The patient is obviously sane in most respects yet claims to see her lifeless limb springing into action” (Ramachandran 199, 131, in Alcorn 2).

For Alcorn, Ramachandran’s observations apply to the average person, the average student as well.  Using British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion, Alcorn describes the state that he has observed in his students as, “the desire not to know.”  Teacher’s meet students’ ‘desire not to know’ on a regular basis and must work against it to perform the real work of teaching, which seems to be about transformation––the move from ‘the desire not to know’ to the state of willing to know, or willing to start to know.

Thus, Alcorn urges that “educators must do more to develop, not the verbal logical mind, but the nonverbal, emotional, and unconscious mind.” “The production of information without the assimilation of information,” he suggests, “is a foolish and fruitless endeavor” (Alcorn 13).

So, how should psychoanalytically inclined teachers take up Alcorn’s call and tap into our students’ nonverbal, emotional, and unconscious minds?  How do we move our students from a state of “desire not to know” to a state of desire to start to know?

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