Monday, June 11, 2012

Knowledge & Ignorance

I got into a what we will kindly call a “debate” this morning on the subject of ignorance and learning. It began when I made a comment about nonchalance and the term “sprezzatura,” which comes from Castiglione’s The Courtier. The girl I was talking to misunderstood the definition of nonchalant, comparing it to apathy. I offered her a more appropriate definition, which she then rephrased as, “faking that you don’t give a damn”. I may have been goading her a little when I made the analogy of, “Yes, but that’s like comparing mud to potter’s clay.” She responded with some comment about supposing it depending on where the mud originated. Things went downhill from there.

Part of the debate was regarding the importance of classic literature, which she places no value on. I, on the other hand, have a degree in English and while I rarely enjoyed the classics, I did learn to value them. A fair quantity of Western history and culture is inexorably tied up in those classics. If they haven’t shaped history on their own, the figures who shaped history have been shaped by them. The results of these works color our understanding and daily lives in ways one can only understand if one is familiar with them. Whether philosophy or fiction, our thinking has been guided by literature for hundreds of years. To be ignorant of the classics is bad, to be willfully ignorant is depressing.

To be fair, she did agree that learning and education make you a better person. Most of the disagreement developed from her opinion of what was worth learning and what kind of learning made one person better than another. I hadn’t made any statements regarding the value of an individual based on their education, but somewhere along the way she decided that I was taking the arrogant prick stance. I may have taken it out on her by pushing her buttons, but I don’t really like it when people put words in my mouth. For someone who claims to be an extremely literal person, she was certainly worried more about the connotations of my word choice than the actual meanings of the words.

Is she wrong in her assumption? Not entirely. I do value individuals based on their education. I offer educated people more respect than I do those who haven’t attended an institute of higher learning. There’s a caveat there; if you know more about Nietzsche than I do, I’m not concerned with how you learned it, just that you did. Self-educated or college educated, it’s the education that matters. The willingness to learn. If an individual is unaware of something but expresses a desire to change that, then what they don’t know doesn’t matter. To scoff at knowledge of any kind, but particularly such relevant knowledge, bothers me. A constant desire for self-improvement, the gathering of knowledge of any kind is one of the few goals that I put real stock in. Knowledge of the world, its history, and its cultures will always be worth having. Literature is one of the sources of that information.

I will be honest, I find it challenging to communicate with people who aren’t as intelligent as I am. My debate partner this morning isn’t one of those people; she is quite intelligent. Our failures stem from differences in dogma, her tendency to twist the meaning of words, and my tendency to use words I know she is going to twist when I am provoked. Otherwise, I find she thinks on a similar intellectual level more than most people I have encountered.
I suppose part of my irritation stems from the belief that mass education at higher standards than we currently hold in the United States would cure a lot of social ills. Having experienced the difference between what children are capable of learning and what they are taught first hand, I truly think that education, while not a panacea, is certainly a way to treat the problem and not just the symptoms. Ignorance, regardless of intelligence, isn’t bliss. It leaves a wake of bigotry, racism, sexism, poverty, and the worst aspects of conservative thinking to name a few.

That is my opinion. And it is hard to respect anyone who supports ignorance over education. How much education is enough? None. It’s an impossible goal. There’s no such thing as over-educated. Life is about learning. You learn whether you want to or not. . . but the more you want to, the better life gets. At least, that’s my two cents and it’s riches enough for me.

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