Sometimes education takes unlearning: unlearning methods that do not help our growth, unlearning terms that are more couched in modern vernacular than the truth of their meaning. When coming to a text on nationalism by a sociologist who is thinking anthropologically and has lived all over the globe with an education as diverse, there is a good chance that my western American mind and his are going to come to different conclusions. Both of us are using the same basis for knowing: history, media, and culture, but his education and experience in the topic greatly eclipse my own.
In beginning to read Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, my mind flashed through the past year with a president who has awakened the alt-right nationalist movement like none I have seen in the US during my lifetime. Thus, when I think of nationalism I tend to think of the fringe groups attracting so much press. On the other hand, I quickly realized I had some unlearning to do as I read Anderson’s work. His depth and breadth caused me to rethink my perception of nationalism in America, and indeed the meaning and implications of the term.
To begin to comprehend Anderson’s writing requires removing ideological framing and instead viewing the nation through an anthropological lens. To define the term nation Anderson says, “it is an imagined political community— and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” The limitations focus on the geography, the literal boundaries of each nation while the sovereignty is the perception of being part of a larger ‘imagined community’ of homogenous people who share the same identity within the territory. In addition, sovereignty is identified as the nations freedom from a ruling higher power, particularly a religious power. These nations, bounded by land while free to rule themselves, begin to derive a national identity.
Anderson explains the development of the nations through multiple historic and cultural changes, with the primary influencer being print-capitalism. The power of print cannot be overstated as it changed the way people identified themselves individually and collectively. Through language and writing that could be understood and dispensed to the masses from a small number of sources, print would reshape the collective conscious cultivating and reinforcing the beliefs within the nation to make imagined communities into real ones with shared communal experiences.
Of course having a collective experience based on the print media of the day from minimal sources also had the power to evangelize the most important values of those in power, and it did beginning with the literate population of Europe, expanding through the religious movement of the Reformation and finally in the common language of the day by those who wanted absolute power.
In reflecting on what was happening during the shift to national consciousness, I began to wonder about the general public’s ability to think critically as they read from these sources. Would they be able to analyze and evaluate thinking presented to them with a view to improving it as Paul and Elder’s text proposes? Would the masses have a voice into the collective thought or would they be mere recipients of the download from those in power?
Fast-forward to the twentieth century and the national consciousness being shared through radio, print and television. In asking the same questions of critical thinking as above, I think of a nation outside my own, namely South Africa. A minority group from the outside rose to power and separated people into townships in order to control urbanization and growth of the indigenous people of the nation. The reality of the nation and the collective conscious was divided. The boundaries of Apartheid would eventually crumble with the growth of the oppressed majority and the release of their leader, Nelson Mandela, from prison. With Mandela leading from a place of humility in seeking to unify the nation, South Africa would have an opportunity to be transformed by re-imagination of the community through improving the standards of life for the whole of the nation and not merely one people group.
Coming together as a unified nation would take unlearning by many who had habituated oppression of non-white ethnicities. This would take much time and effort, and as we saw in our recent visit to Cape Town last September, the unification of the nation for the good of the collective people in the nation has not yet happened.
Margie Warrell in her article in Forbes leadership section writes about the difficulty and necessity of unlearning, “Unlearning is about moving away from something—letting go—rather than acquiring. It’s like stripping old paint. It lays the foundation for the new layer of fresh learning to be acquired and to stick. But like the painter who needs to prepare a surface, stripping the paint is 70% of the work while repainting is only 30%.”
Still grappling with Anderson’s text and its layers of meaning and unfamiliar jargon, I recognize the power of the media through the internet and social platforms to grip a nation, polarize them and keep them addicted to the continuous unfolding drama having little to do with the truth of life or the deeper realities of a country and the people within it. Yet, I also recognize the vast majority, of my nation at least, has access to not only receive the content but also to contribute through our own voices. And for many, including myself this will take effort. It will require a re-education. As philosopher Alvin Toffler once wrote: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” This relearning requires humility, as we will not and cannot know everything. And although there is truth that never wavers, nationalism will continue to evolve, just as the nation itself has evolved into the modern world.
 Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verson, 1983, 6.
 Anderson, 40.
 Paul, Richard and Linda Elder. The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking: Concepts & Tools. 7th ed. Thinker’s Guide Library. Tomales, CA, 2014, Locations 33-34.
 Welsh, David. The Rise and Fall of Apartheid. Jeppestown: Jonathon Ball Press, 2009, 57.
 Warrell, Margie. “Learn, Unlearn And Relearn: How To Stay Current And Get Ahead”. Forbes, Accessed January 18, 2018. https://www.forbes.com/sites/margiewarrell/2014/02/03/learn-unlearn-and-relearn/