Learning, Unlearning, and the Freedom to Read


On December 10, 2022, University Distinguished Professor Phil Nel provided the commencement address for the College of Arts and Sciences at Kansas State University. Below is the text of his speech. Many thanks to Phil for allowing us to share it here. (You can view his presentation through the university’s archived video at 16:00.)


Good morning, graduates, families, friends, fellow teachers and fellow learners — for we are all always learning and, I think, all always teaching. Even and especially when we’re not aware that we are learning and teaching.

As your speaker today, I’m called upon to share what I’ve learned — impart a portable piece of wisdom for you to tuck into your pockets or beneath your tasseled caps.

Instead, I am going to talk about what I do not know and about what I have had to unlearn. I’ll talk about when not-knowing has helped, and when not-knowing has not helped. And how unlearning something we had thought to be true is itself an important kind of knowledge.

Have I lost you all with that opening? Are you now checking your phones, Googling my name and wondering why on earth I was asked to speak today? Well, if you look up for the next 7 minutes, I’ll do my best to make it worth your while.

I owe one of my proudest achievements to not-knowing. When I started writing a biography of Crockett Johnson, author of the classic children’s book Harold and the Purple Crayon, I did not know that writing a biography was impossible. You see, first of all, life has no narrative. But if you are writing a biography, you need to provide a narrative: otherwise, no one will read the book. Second of all, how do you stop researching a biography? A biography is a giant jigsaw puzzle with an unknown number of pieces, no picture on the box, and in fact no box at all. So, only by beginning in ignorance of all of this could I write what turned out to be a double-biography of Johnson and his wife, Ruth Krauss, also a creator of children’s books.

That’s an example about dreaming. When you’re dreaming, not-knowing can be really helpful: you lack the practical, sensible, rational limits that might end your dream.

But — and I know you know this, because you have also had times when lack of knowledge has tripped you up — not-knowing can also be harmful. Harmful to yourself. And, worse, harmful to others.

Perhaps you remember, in March of last year, when Dr. Seuss Enterprises decided to cease publication of six Dr. Seuss books that contain racist imagery? Yes? Well, the morning this occurred, I thought, OK, five of those six books are not surprising: Seuss often uses “foreignness” as a punch-line, and I’d already noticed racist caricature in some of his books. But I was really surprised by the sixth book, On Beyond Zebra! That is a personal favorite. It invents an entirely new alphabet to describe all you can see if you don’t stop at the letter “Z.” It reminds young readers that this language they’re learning is arbitrary and slightly ridiculous. What could possibly be objectionable?

 Well, I took the book off the shelf, began re-reading, and upon looking at one illustration, realized that Seuss’s caricature of a Middle Eastern man was … a caricature of a Middle Eastern man. I had not seen the illustration as a caricature until then. Now, I’ve not only written about racism in Seuss’s work, but my book Was the Cat in the Hat Black? actually began the conversation that led to Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ decision to stop publishing those six books. You’d think I would have noticed. I hadn’t. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I didn’t see what I didn’t see.

So, how do we become aware of what we don’t know? How do we begin to see what we have failed to see? This where unlearning comes in: Unlearning can help us become aware, and see what we missed.

Growing up, I read lots of books and consumed lots of culture featuring straight white kids like me. As a result, that perspective came to seem natural, normal, and objectively true. This perspective really limits my understanding. So, I’ve had to do a lot of unlearning.

Here’s a great way to unlearn. Read books and consume culture that does not center you or your experience. In my case, I read, teach, and study multicultural children‘s literature.

Like Jacqueline Woodson’s The Day You Begin, a picture book that gently corrects the oft-repeated, well-intentioned misunderstanding that “We are all the same.” We share a common humanity, yes. But we’re not the same. As picture book creator Christopher Myers has said, “The narrative ‘we are all the same underneath’ is a fear of difference.” Furthermore, as Myers reminds us, our differences are really interesting.

When young adult novelist M.T. Anderson was writing his magnificent non-fiction book about Shostakovich, he did a deep dive into all the writers Shostakovich admired. As Anderson said, “everything about their work [was] surprising and unfamiliar. What a pleasure it was to open a book and have no idea—none!—where it would take me.”

All children and all of us grown-ups need books like these — books that serve as what Rudine Sims Bishop calls “windows” (they offer a view of people whose experiences differ from our own). But also what Bishop calls “mirrors” (books that reflect us, affirm our identity), and “sliding glass doors” (“window” books that invite us to step through, interact, join the struggle of those on the other side of the window). As Dr. Seuss did, I grew up with mostly mirrors. And as children do, he and I absorbed many ideas without our awareness and without our consent. Some of those ideas were racist or sexist. And we both tried to unlearn those ideas. Seuss wrote two children’s books and several political cartoons that are actively critical of prejudice, though — at the very same time he was creating those — also recycled racist caricature in his work.

As I work to unlearn my own prejudices, Seuss’s career has taught me that racism is not an either/or. It’s often a both/and. People can both oppose racism (and sexism and other isms) and support those same isms … without intending to. Because racism, sexism, all the isms do not depend upon self-perception or intent. Which is another thing I’ve had to learn — that I can cause harm without intending to.

Now, the good news for us today is that there are many more diverse perspectives represented in our books, our TV shows, and our movies — more mirrors for people who once had few or none, and more windows and sliding glass doors for people like me.

The bad news is that book-banning in the United States is at an all-time high — 2022 has surpassed 2021, which was already a record year. And the books being banned are almost entirely multicultural books for young readers — the very books that we most need, if we want to live in an inclusive, multiracial democracy.

So, as you go out into the world, I ask that you do three things. First, defend the freedom to read. Defend the public libraries and public schools in your community. Second, embrace unlearning by reading books and consuming culture that does not center you, your culture, or your understanding. Third, dream big, unconstrained by what you have yet to learn.

In conclusion: as you continue your lifelong journey of learning and unlearning, may you stay vigilant against the censors who would squelch curiosity, may all your mistakes bring with them a compensatory wisdom, and may you achieve what you at first thought impossible.

 Thank you. And congratulations.

Phil Nel, University Distinguished Professor

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