Of all of the rational things to fear about the future, nothing is more insidious and more threatening than ignorance. Nothing is more pervasive and more unrelenting in deleterious effect than being unaware of the vital matters that should command our attention, if only we recognized them and how important they are to our well being. Hindsight provides an irrefutable historical record with which to confirm this assertion. We have the technological know-how to explore our solar system and tinker with DNA, and yet the majority of our citizens understand so little about human relations that wars are inevitable. At times, even our idealistic ability to practice democracy is suspect.
Zoom out for a big-picture look at our approach to education, and the mass production of ignorance begins to make sense, not because of intent—our intentions are noble—but by default of method and circumstance. An educational system born in an agrarian culture, and later industrialized to produce compliant employees, mass produces the skills of how, but inhibits questions as to why. The result is a debilitating kind of existential ignorance taught in assembly-line fashion, as millions of people learn to be human doings, but not human beings. Turning the tide is a difficult proposition. It requires engaging the population at-large in an all-out effort to rise to a level of education necessary to attain our democratic ideals, establish a genuine democracy, and build a sustainable civilization.
In September University, I examine the incapacitating results of what I describe as a saddle-horse education—the kind that groups together children who are the same age but have varying levels of ability, and holds them in lockstep rhythm with a constant barrage of answers to questions they have not asked. This approach may seem to work well for some, but for millions of people it amounts to a profound numbing of the psyche, followed by a lifetime spent avoiding the very thing that offers a person the greatest quality of life, namely, the benefit of a humanistic education. Enriched with the humanities, the same people would be able to deal with their own anxieties without the felt need to blame others for sharing the same planet.
Nothing is more devastating than what amounts to the cauterization of curiosity for a large segment of society. Explaining the matter away by claiming that some people are simply not bookish is not a respectable answer—it’s a rationalization and a shallow one at that. The fact that millions of people feel it appropriate to argue vociferously over subjects they know nothing, whatsoever, about—subjects they have never examined above a level of water-cooler hearsay or a Fox News announcement—is one of the most disturbing behaviors of our species. It’s one that should and would be the focus of our educational system, except for the fact that the objective defaulted by circumstance is to produce dutiful employees, not responsible citizens.
The lasting and consequential benefit of what I characterize as an existential education would be the possibility that many more of our citizens would reach the inevitable conclusion that a thorough understanding is necessary to objectively solve problems, and that requires knowledge, not arrogance or the usual side-taking ethos of us against them.
Willful ignorance is human tragedy writ-large; it contains seeds of destruction for mankind and for most of the species on the earth. The amount of public discourse and media attention given to the notion of freedom being a premium product of democracy would be worth untold billions, maybe trillions, if it were purchased as media advertising. But little mention is ever given to the responsibility of Americans to become knowledgeable enough to live up to the Founding Fathers’ aspirations of what citizenship requires.
A recent essay in Newsweek titled “How Dumb Are We?” makes crystal clear that our future is threatened by our collective ignorance. And in a commentary in Bloomberg Businessweek a few months ago, titled “The Inequality Delusion,” Drake Bennett describes exhaustive research by two prominent psychologists showing that most Americans are out of touch with the reality of inequality in America; what they think exists would be more in keeping with the economic reality of Sweden. What but an indifferent strain of passive ignorance could lead people to such an absurd conclusion?
Why is so little attention given to being responsible for the veracity of one’s opinions? One person, one vote does not translate into one opinion being as good as another if it is based upon emotional nonsense. In a nutshell, an educational system that does not inspire a life of enthusiastic learning in persons with the most sophisticated brains on the planet is a failure by any measure concerned with the future of humanity. It is a sad commentary that legions of our citizens decry elitism instead of striving to become living, breathing examples of it. We are by birth an elite species. To be elite is simply to be the best in a group which by happenstance improves the group’s chances for success. Why on earth would we set out to be less than what our potential suggests we could be?
Countless people strive with an all-out effort to improve their golf score or bridge game, but show little concern for striving to understand the complexity of their own life circumstances, let alone our place in the scheme of international relations. Why are exceptional athletes who break records revered, while exceptionally well-educated people are reviled? Defaulting to blaming scapegoats is always easier than scholarship. It also serves to bind one to a group, allowing shared contempt to take on the appearance of patriotism.
Democracy is not a sport, and freedom is not a scoreboard prize. Our political parties are not teams. The better argument should have nothing whatsoever to do with whose side one is on, and if we cannot be convinced en masse to accept the better argument, we don’t deserve to call ourselves Americans. The whole premise of our way of life rests on the assumption that the better argument is what we seek. The irony is that so many people champion the Constitution without a clue as to its meaning.
The current mania about testing, and the teaching-to-the- test behavior that always follows this practice, is a guarantee that many more generations of students will experience a deadened curiosity, along with a fair measure of contempt for the very thing that could, would, and should offer them the greatest measure of quality to their lives, which is to achieve the love of learning that their brains are designed to experience. As Diane Ravitch points out in The Death and Life of the Great American School System, and in a recent Newsweek article, the incessant drilling for test preparation is subversive to enthusiasm for learning; it deadens interest, stifles innovation, and sabotages the spirit for learning.
We’ve known about the intrinsic rewards of learning for decades, but instead of going all out to help students gain their own intrinsic satisfaction from learning, our educators periodically redouble their efforts to do as they have always done, which is to alienate students with intensified schooling. The idealistic aspiration for teachers is to inspire, as Ralph Waldo Emerson argued more than a century ago. But because it is idealistic does not mean it is an unworthy goal. An education that does not continue on its own volition is one that did not take.
Ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance is a self-destructive, self-defeating void where misspent emotion provides the substance needed to sow distrust and keep hatred at the forefront of public discourse. Ignorance is our greatest enemy, always has been and always will be. It is ironic beyond measure that our society rewards the cheerleaders of ignorance with riches at the same time teachers’ salaries and benefits become the focus of budget cutting all across America.
The current state of communication technologies is so far removed from a part-agrarian and part-industrial-style education that today many students learn much more on their own than in the classroom. Never before have there been so many ways with which to inspire students, if only we could own up to the notion that inspiring them is indeed what needs to be done. Unless we can arouse people at large to pay attention to the things that desperately need attention, the future of our country is bleak at best.