This I Believe: Regarding Ignorance

January 26, 2009

I believe that ignorance is not bliss, and it is definitely not a virtue.

When a CEO or other leader claims ignorance of his subordinates’ wrongdoing, that is grounds for incompetence, not innocence. When parents keep secrets from their children, they are leaving them not in bliss but in wariness and uncertainty, or at best in obliviousness. We call ignorance bliss when we learn something unpleasant and wish viscerally we did not know it, when our assumptions about ourselves, our world, or people we love or respect are challenged or disproved, and we question our judgment. We call ignorance bliss in comparison to shock and self-questioning. We call ignorance bliss when we wish to turn back time.

A lack of ignorance on a subject is not the same as knowing all the details. A parent can keep her child informed about where babies come from or other ‘adult’ topics or issues without rubbing his face in all the gritty details, or forcing him to assimilate complex concepts too fast. By treating even children with respect, by not hiding the ambiguity of the world or lying about uncomfortable subjects, one allows people around oneself to learn and grow at their own pace. If someone is mature enough to ask, it is wrong to put obstacles in their way. You don’t have an obligation to answer, especially to a stranger or to someone asking in a rude or disrespectful manner, but those who don’t speak aren’t heard. I’d rather speak than stay silent, most times; I ask questions, I offer theories, I seek to define myself and the world around me through respectful conversation with others and knowledge-seeking in my own right.

Ignorance is a state where the knowledge is out there, and one doesn’t know it because one hasn’t looked or tried to learn it, or someone is keeping that knowledge secret from you. This definition doesn’t imply that other people owe you an education, unless they voluntarily take on the role of teacher. Nor do you owe anyone anything but basic courtesy, respect, and the self-awareness not to abuse your privileges, as a general rule of thumb. But I believe that both willful ignorance and keeping secrets are generally corrosive to the human soul and to one’s relations with others.

Emotional closeness comes from trust and shared vulnerability. Even when one keeps secrets to protect people, it takes a strong emotional toll. It implicitly betrays the trust received by hiding that one has closed up part of oneself, which cheapens any vulnerability one offers in return. If one keeps secrets from oneself or to protect oneself, one loses the chance to incorporate knowledge from those secrets into one’s identity and one’s world.

As for willful ignorance—why keep the world narrow? I think the political and social landscape of America during the Bush years is an excellent example of how willful ignorance, secrets, and abuse of public trust corrode not just individuals but communities, countries, and our shared future.

I believe that everyone ought to be able to learn at their own pace, but that ideal requires that society encourage curiosity and not mire itself in excessive self-deception. It requires society to ensure that everyone can find the time and resources for self-education, and to avoid privileging a formal classroom education over other routes to expanding one’s capacities. It requires a culture that values knowledge, a society secure enough to question and to answer, to look and to find, again and again.

The story of the Garden of Eden is a classic case for the so-called bliss of ignorance. Life in the Garden is free from worry or physical needs; God has created an environment where food, shelter, and companionship are freely available, but information is not. Adam and Eve are free to create their own knowledge, free to name the animals and categorize the world around them, but God does not share the knowledge of Good and Evil. God reveals its existence, but only in the context of forbidding them access to it. It is left to God’s creation, the snake, to encourage them not just to go confirm its existence, but to ingest it, absorb it into themselves and their knowledge of the world. And it is only when Eve and Adam make the choice of knowledge that God judges them ready for the outside world, and ready to be parents.

We are not born of our fathers’ ribs but of our mothers’ wombs. Knowledge is not painless; seeding knowledge may be fun and exciting, but releasing it into the world in a form that is ready to be independent of you is anything but. And perhaps it is no mistake that the act of acquiring moral knowledge is often know as the Original Sin. The word we translate as ‘sin’ comes from a Greek word for missing the mark, as in an arrow that does not quite hit the target. The knowledge we value most is the sort not easy to hit, the kind that requires many arrows sent towards the target, and the willingness to miss, to deal with the consequences responsibly, and to try again.

I believe that knowledge has worth, and that ignorance is a vacuum; I believe that everyone has a right to seek knowledge and the right to learn at the their own pace, and the obligation not to let exercising those rights retard the growth of others.



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