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Schubart: Willful Ignorance

Let me start by saying that “ignorance” is a meaningless word. It’s a judgment that lacks any clarity. I grew up among many undereducated people who had more wisdom and common sense than later friends who graduated from Ivy League schools and, forty years hence, find themselves lost in a random and complex world. Nor do intellectuals have any more claim to absolute right than a wise elder, imbued with common sense and living a curious and contemplative life. So I don’t use the term ignorant, but I consider willful or determined ignorance both arrogant and destructive - especially when it manifests itself as a comprehensive distrust of education, science, history, and the arts.

It’s often said that “ignorance is bliss.” But we shouldn’t believe it for a moment.

Willful ignorance comes from inchoate fear, anger, and victimhood, nothing more. And it feeds on itself, admitting only self-justifying facts and judgments that confirm calcified belief systems.

I’ve known fear and anger, but they don’t make me a victim. They energize introspection, self-doubt, inquiry, and curiosity. I reject victimhood; I’m a human being, subject to all life’s randomness and the good and bad behaviors of those around me.

The problem with willful ignorance – one’s own, and that imposed on children and family – is that it solves nothing and it perpetuates itself. By nature, it’s stagnant and cornered. All blame lies outside the self and relief is beyond one’s control. The disdain for education, engagement, and differing viewpoints becomes an emotional and intellectual prison in which victimhood is the only sustenance.

The most effective antidote lies in a civic-minded educational system and the culture of our homelife since we know that the single largest determinant of educational success is the home we’re born into. Parental bias, anger, fear, and distrust all pervade the atmosphere our children breathe. But we also hear of children overcoming such beginnings through the intervention of a wise grandparent, teacher, or friend.

Liberals are quick to condemn “the ignorant” who vote against their own interests, who dance to the fiddle of someone whose intentions are ultimately harmful. But that’s overly simplistic because fear and anger occur among all of us, on all political and cultural sides. What determines our future is what we do with that anger and fear. Willful ignorance only guarantees more of the same… or worse.

Bill Schubart lives and writes in Hinesburg. His latest book is Lila & Theron.
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