Thursday, July 1, 2010

Don't choose ignorance

A couple of nights ago, my husband, Itinerant Cryptographer, and I were debating the current state of American politics.

"I just wish there was an up-and-coming environmentally-aware presidential candidate," I lamented. "The last one we had was Al Gore, and I'm not sure he would have made a great president."

We proceeded to dissect several recent prominent political figures. With my green-leaning views and his Libertarian ones, we diverged on several points.

"I think he was stupid," I declared, describing a politician rather bluntly.

Itinerant Cryptographer disagreed. "He was ignorant on the issues," my husband said. "I think he could have understood them if his advisors had allowed it."

Ignorance. We imbue the word with disgust, but what does it really mean?

Merriam-Webster defines ignorance as "the state or fact of being ignorant: lack of knowledge, education, or awareness.

So let's face facts: there's no shame in being ignorant. No one can know everything. But when we refuse to examine new ideas or learn new things, we are choosing to remain ignorant. Ignoring the issues doesn't make them go away.

There are certain subjects - foreign policy, how a camera works, proper use of a compass, how to diagram a sentence* - that are going to send me straight to a text book or even a children's encyclopedia. It might feel embarrassing to me - how can I not know what fuels the trains that run behind my house? - but there is no shame to not knowing the answer. Everyone has to start somewhere.

Life is a learning lesson. I truly believe that our job is to learn, ponder, and use our newly-acquired knowledge to leave the world a better place than we found it.

Photo credit: Leon Brooks,

* My nine-year-old learned to diagram sentences in the third grade. Despite my two college degrees and scads of English classes, I never learned to do this. My husband had to help our son with his homework because it baffled me. But now that I've written this post (despite my firm desire to remain ignorant on this subject!), I am going to go to my son and have him teach me how to diagram sentences. I don't want to be a hypocrite!

What are you going to learn today?


cachestarhouse said...

The part that scares me was what your husband said: "I think he could have understood them if his advisors had allowed it."

If advisors are deciding what a presidential candidate can learn about, then who are we really voting for?

CricketB said...

I think your husband was half-right about the advisers not allowing him to learn. The other half is that the populace wouldn't trust a politician that actually admitted to understanding something they didn't.

People who don't know something undervalue the knowledge. They're cutting statistics from some science degrees because it's a difficult subject. That leaves us with researchers (and doctors) who don't know how to interpret a positive result from a test with a high false-positive rate for a low-risk patient.

Try Kipling's poem The Son's of Martha. His brother was an engineer and Kipling understands the pride and responsibility. I don't know if he'd have been so caring of the sons of Mary if he'd realized what idiocy their leaders would start spouting.

As for diagramming sentences, I've learned it a few times, and gotten top marks each time. Then I had to relearn it for the next teacher, because she changed the answers.

jublke said...

Thanks for your thoughts, cachestarhouse & CricketB. In my most idealistic view of science, I trust that we can each share our knowledge in an inclusive way and build bridges. Unfortunately, I have to accept that people build barriers to knowledge as well. This occurs on both sides - those with knowledge who use barriers to control people and those who refuse to learn about something for fear that they might be manipulated. P.S. I still haven't learned to diagram a sentence. Oops!