The Sin of Ignorance

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Editor note As a child I learned to fear ignorance. My mother would open her eyes wide and wag her hand menacingly as she dismissed a senseless argument with the words, “I don’t deal with ignorance!”

Literature and song are replete with pronouncements on the sin of ignorance. Calypsonian Lord Cristo began his hit “Dumb Boy & the Parrot” with the salvo, “Where ignorance is bliss, it’s folly to be wise,” borrowing a line from Thomas Gray, the 18th-century English poet.  Every child of the early 1960s Caribbean knows, and has a healthy respect for, that line.

 As an adult I learned that ignorance is more than just the enemy of the individual. Nineteenth-century freethinker Lemuel K. Washburn wrote the following in his essay “Is the Bible Worth Reading?”: “History shows that there is nothing so easy to enslave and nothing so hard to emancipate as ignorance, hence it becomes the double enemy of civilization. By its servility it is the prey of tyranny, and by its credulity it is the foe of enlightenment.”

More than a century later, in a sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Sept. 16, 1962, Martin Luther King Jr., declared, “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” It’s a declaration with which Network Journal contributor Clarence V. Reynolds signs off all of his e-mails.

 At a time when the country needs the full might of its brainpower to pull out of the worst recession since the 1930s and to compete in a world that is increasingly knowledge-based, sincere ignorance has become commonplace. Fueled daily by radio and television infotainment — that insidious programming that passes for journalism — sincere ignorance is the root of jaw-dropping arguments against health-care reform. “It is not a slippery slope, it is a mudslide into Communism!” one protester declared when a tortuously crafted reform bill became law in March. Sincere ignorance drove some parents to “protect” their children from an innocuous address to students last September, in which President Obama challenged them to work hard, set educational goals and take responsibility for their learning.

The protectors argued that the president really wanted to brainwash their children with socialist ideas. Even that was too much for the normally media-shy Laura Bush, who asserted publicly that there was nothing wrong with the president addressing the nation’s students.

 Bright people seem bent on creating a sincerely ignorant America, either for political gain, or financial gain, or both. Political candidates question the patriotism of opponents who are highly educated. One even suggested that his Rhodes scholar rival, who had studied at the University of Oxford in Britain — America’s most reliable ally — had “commie” leanings as a result. Never mind that a Rhodes scholarship is one of the world’s most prestigious post-graduate awards. 

Small wonder that in 2008, the country ranked 18th in secondary education among the 36 nations examined by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, surpassed by South Korea, which placed first with 93 percent of its high-school students graduating on time. Small wonder, too, that Asian countries outperform us by far in math and science. At this rate, it may take the brains of immigrants, which gave birth to such American icons as eBay, Google, Yahoo, Intel and Pfizer, to save us from a mudslide into permanent second-classness. But then, sincere ignorance may lock such brains out of the country under immigration reform.