Ignorance: The Heart of Education

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Our educational culture wars are NOT battles between brutish conservatives who want to keep vital information out of the hands of children, on the one side, and scheming progressives on the other, progressives who want to dump information on hapless children, heedless of the moral consequences. Rather, all of us agree that schooling should promote and protect some forms of ignorance among kids. We only disagree on the details.


Known unknowns and unknown unknowns…

Now at long last we will have a collection of scholarly essays about the history of ignorance and education. Thanks to editor AJ Angulo, a new volume will soon hit the libraries. Miseducation will be published in early 2016 with Johns Hopkins University Press.

As the publisher explains,

Ignorance, or the study of ignorance, is having a moment. Ignorance plays a powerful role in shaping public opinion, channeling our politics, and even directing scholarly research. The first collection of essays to grapple with the historical interplay between education and ignorance, Miseducation finds ignorance—and its social production through naïveté, passivity, and active agency—at the center of many pivotal historical developments. Ignorance allowed Americans to maintain the institution of slavery, Nazis to promote ideas of race that fomented genocide in the 1930s, and tobacco companies to downplay the dangers of cigarettes. Today, ignorance enables some to deny the fossil record and others to ignore climate science.

I was honored to be asked to contribute. In my chapter, I look at the publishing efforts of fundamentalist schools such as Bob Jones University and Pensacola Christian College. How have those textbooks, I wondered, promoted a certain form of knowledge? How have they pushed a certain form of ignorance?

Perhaps more interesting, this volume can encourage all of us to examine the ways schools have not simply distributed knowledge. Any school, any educational project, must also encourage certain forms of ignorance.

It may seem outlandish, but it’s really so obvious it can be hard to see. What would we say if a second-grade teacher showed her students a violent movie such as Saving Private Ryan? Not at all appropriate. Not because it’s a bad movie, but because it’s incredibly violent.

What would we say if a second-grade teacher traumatized her students by taking them on a field trip to a slaughterhouse? Not at all appropriate. Not because it’s not educational, but because there are some truths we want to keep from young people.

It’s obvious to most of us: Some things are not appropriate for young kids to learn in school. Not because they’re not true, but because we want children to remain ignorant of some things. We expect schools to work hard to keep them ignorant of some things.

Angulo’s collection of essays will help examine these questions in new ways. Make room on your shelves!

Leave a comment


  1. What would we say if a second-grade teacher traumatized her students by taking them on a field trip to a slaughterhouse? Not at all appropriate. Not because it’s not educational, but because there are some truths we want to keep from young people.

    The example is good. But I think the conclusion is wrong. We, as educators, are not trying to keep those truths from young people. Rather, we see that the schools are not the appropriate place for presenting those truths. We would not campaign against parents or Churches exposing children to those particular truths.

    I think the principle is not that we need to maintain ignorance. Rather, the principle is that the schools are not the right institutions to deal with some kinds of ignorance.

    This, I think, is part of the culture wars. Social conservatives see sex education (for example) as outside the range of where schools should be involved.

    • Exactly. I was just about to say the same thing. A distinction has been missed between willfully obscuring, distorting, or suppressing appropriate knowledge. We do want grade school children to know something about conflict, war, and violence — inevitably they do and ask questions. That hardly means we need to show them R-rated movies with realistic combat, gunshot wounds, and people dying.

      On “social conservatives” I’m not sure sex ed is a big deal for them all. In my experience it is a subset of maladjusted social conservatives — a dominant minority that often has majority clusters non-urban areas. The common feature is families with high anxiety about sex/uality related to a parent’s own past which may involve abuse and/or more or less injurious religious instruction. It’s a multi-generational family problem where repression and denial are the preferred solution, so shutting down sex ed in the schools is quite honestly an attempt to keep family matters that might be triggered under wraps and “private.”

      @Adam — I hope this book looks at just how much money there is in the ignorance and miseducation business.

  2. I have such a lousy memory. I hope I remember the name of this book in 2016 when it’s released. As to Neil’s point, my county has the highest rate of teen pregnancy and infant mortality. The issue of leaving it to churches and/or parents, at least around here, is that they are not teaching truth to children. On a national level, I remember Michele Bachmann spreading misinformation about the Gardia vaccine.Her objections really were religious. I never understood why some Christians were so against the vaccine. After all, even if they truly believed their kids would be more likely to have sex, they never considered that said children could possibly be raped, and thus be exposed to the HPV. But I have digressed.

    • Just to be clear, I agree with you on the value of sex education. Nevertheless, it is a contentious issue in the culture wars.

  3. sorry for typo: Giardia. Also known as Gardasil.

  4. Wow. Showing my own ignorance/bad memory thing again. Giardia is a parasite. I was speaking of Gardasil, the vaccine for HPV. Sorry, everyone.

    • There were a number of negative reactions to the HPV vaccine, not all from religious conservatives or necessarily unreasonable.


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