In the film “Matilda,” the girl’s father, Harry Wormwood, in conversation with Matilda’s teacher, Miss Honey, belittles educated people.
“I didn’t go to college,” said Harry. “I don’t know anybody who did. Bunch of hippies and cesspool salesmen.”
That moment captures something of the public mood these days.
When did we make the sharp turn away from respecting people who actually know stuff to a full-body embrace of ignorance? To disdaining the college-educated engineer who designs the bridges we drive on or the college-educated physician who performs the surgery that saves your life?
No doubt some would tell me to quit kvetching, it’s always been this way.
Perhaps. In the 19th Century we even had a political party that proudly proclaimed itself “The Know Nothings.” As if being uninformed were some sort of praiseworthy virtue worthy of a title. It isn’t.
Yet it seems to me that ignorance has never had the prominent place at the table it has today.
To be clear, ignorance itself is not the problem. All it means is one doesn’t know something, which leaves open the possibility that one could learn. It’s why I’ve always believed, for example, that the sensible alternative to belief in a supreme being is not atheism, which assumes a greater knowledge of the universe than anyone has ever possessed or likely ever will possess, but agnosticism.
Willful ignorance in the teeth of all evidence to the contrary, and a stubborn refusal to consider any other way but one’s own is the problem. Those people who propagate falsehoods and sustain willful ignorance, slathering the masses as they do so with unadulterated dumb, are also a big part of the problem.
This is no benign process. The upshot has the potential to stifle the nation’s development when we need all the brains we can bring to the scrum in this highly competitive and dangerous world.
We can poke fun at ignorance.
In this scene from the first act of the play “Don’t Drink the Water,” Bradley Dunston McGee, the fictional United States Ambassador to the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, is admonishing his son for the young man’s embarrassing failures as a diplomat.
Ambassador: “My own son, whom I raised to be a diplomat, was asked to leave Africa!”
Son: “Don’t get worked up, Dad. Some of the best men in foreign service at one time or another have been asked to leave a country.”
Ambassador: “Africa is a continent! Your were recalled from an entire continent!”
But when former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin referred to Africa as “a country,” I did not laugh. Had the 2008 election gone the other way, she would have been a heartbeat away from the presidency.
Now, I may be a bit odd, but I see the process underway in seemingly innocuous phrases that tell me the speaker has not actually given any thought to what he or she is saying.
For instance, the common phrase: “My argument centers around …”
Think about that for a moment, and then ask yourself: what has ever centered “around” anything? As I see things, the center is the center, and “around” refers to the periphery. It’s accurate to say, my argument “centers” on. I even hear echoes of this in the common, “our headquarters is based around Seattle.”
It’s a question of basic logic. Draw a circle. Make a mental note of the circle. Say out loud, that’s the circle. Now put a dot in the middle. That’s the center. In relation to the circle. See the beauty of the thing?
Even certain ads that say things like: “Tastes crunchy.” Ahgghhh! Crunchy is not a flavor, it’s a texture.
Given the fluidity of human language, I wonder if some future dictionary will refer to “the archaic use of crunchy as a texture.” Dumbness can metastasize and make us sound stupid.
Of course, if we increase the level of ignorance around us, ignorance becomes the norm. Maybe that’s the point of the ignorizers among us. Note how dictatorships always begin by making war on the intelligentsia. Dictators don’t want smart people around who’ll see through their lies and point them out to the masses. The poorly informed are easier to manipulate.
Robert Whale can be reached at email@example.com.