Agnotology and Education

Late-night comics must miss the days of Cheney and Rumsfeld.  Dick Cheney shot people and literally had no heartbeat due to a special kind of pacemaker. Donald Rumsfeld offered rhetorical gems during press
conferences, none better than the following from 2002:

[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know.
We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some
things we do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

Along these lines, although with pithier prose, historian of science Robert Proctor  has suggested a promising line of study, about the things we don’t know and the ways we don’t know them.  He calls the field agnotology, or the study
of ignorance.  Others have suggested different terms, such as agnoiology.  (See Tim Lacy’s discussion of the history on the US Intellectual History blog for more.)

In a recent collection of essays co-edited with Londa Schiebinger, Proctor laid out a three-part structure of agnotology.  In Proctor’s view, it will be helpful to differentiate between types of ignorance:

ignorance as native state (or resource), ignorance as lost realm (or selective choice), and

ignorance as a deliberately engineered and strategic ploy (or active construct).

Proctor and some of the other essay contributors are especially interested in the ways that ignorance can be a strategic ploy.  Proctor, for instance, describes the ways tobacco companies constructed plausible ignorance about the negative health impacts of smoking.  Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, in their contribution “Challenging Knowledge: How Climate Science Became a Victim of the Cold War,” explore the conspiratorial history of the George Marshall Institute and its quest to create ignorance about the causes of global climate change.

It seems to me the study of ignorance has another productive application in our thinking about the cultural and intellectual role of institutional education.  Notions of education usually include the implicit claim to be combating ignorance.  But in fact, some kinds of ignorance have long been part and parcel of educational goals.  In general, this has taken the form of certain types of information from which young people must be shielded.  This has a long and storied legacy.  Anthony Comstock, for example, made his career on protecting youth, women, and other “vulnerable” classes of people from exposure to lewd information.

In American schools, a Calvinist hangover has implicitly shaped ideologies of mandatory ignorance, especially for the young.  Pre-1857 editions of McGuffey’s Third Reader included a short anonymous selection that typified this tradition.  In the short dialogue, “Knowledge is Power,” the first speaker asserts confidently, “Knowledge is an excellent thing.”

An old man replies, “It may be a blessing or a curse.  Knowledge is only an increase of power, and power may be a bad as well as a good thing.”  The old man goes on to give examples that overwhelm the initial reluctance of his optimistic interlocutor: A horse without a bridle can wreck a barn. A pond without dams can flood a field.  A ship well steered goes faster, but if steered wrong, “the more sail she carries, the further will she go out of her course.”

The younger man is convinced.  Without tight control, such things can cause damage.  “‘Well, then,’ continued the old man, ‘if you see these things so clearly, I hope you can see, too, that knowledge to be a good thing, must be rightly applied.  God’s grace in the heart will render the knowledge of the head a blessing; but without this, it may prove to us no better than a curse.”

This short bit captures the powerful drive toward ignorance that long ruled the Reformed tradition in the United States.  Knowledge, in this view, was not a simple good.  It must be carefully examined and weighed before being pursued.  By itself, knowledge could be the sinful knowledge first banned for Adam and Eve.  It could be the knowledge of pernicious doubt and skepticism.  To become wise, in this tradition, meant remaining ignorant of such fields.

This tradition of mandatory ignorance has been enormously influential on American thinking about education and youth.  Throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first century, the notion that ignorance must be actively promoted and defended among young people has proven culturally and politically powerful far beyond the circles of religious conservatives.  Knowledge about sex, violence, and—among certain circles—scientific topics such as evolution has been seen as an intellectual poison.  Building and defending walls of ignorance around such notions has been asserted as the primary aim of education.

For instance, in the 1920s, when the culture wars over the teaching of evolution first heated up, anti-evolutionists insisted that any chink in the armor of ignorance protecting young people would be worse than death.  In 1923, anti-evolution evangelist T.T. Martin demanded relentless defense of the ignorance of young people.  “Ramming poison down the throats of our children is nothing,” Martin accused, “compared with damning their souls with the teaching of Evolution.”

Other anti-evolutionists in the 1920s argued that this ignorance should only extend through children’s formative years.  By the time they reached college age, many thought, they could be safely allowed to know.  For instance, Alfred Fairhurst, a fundamentalist educator active in the 1920s controversies, had always argued that “in the colleges and universities [evolution] ought to be taught honestly and fully to the select few who have the ability to comprehend it in all its bearings.”

Similar arguments were made throughout the twentieth century about the importance of ignorance about sex for young people.  One of the most prolific fundamentalist writers about education and ignorance has been Tim LaHaye.  In his 1983 Battle for the Public School, LaHaye decried the fact that explicit knowledge about sex had been “jammed down the throats of our children.”  LaHaye described one passage of a sex-ed book:

thescene of intercourse portrays a naked father astride his equally naked wife,
intent on three areas of contact: lips, breasts/chest, penis/vagina.  The genital area offers an ‘inner’ diagram,
so that the child can perceive the mother’s vagina and uterus; the father has
inserted his penis into the vagina and is emitting sperm cells.

Such knowledge, LaHaye insisted, exemplified “this reckless policy of inflaming young minds with adult information.”  For LaHaye as for Protestant fundamentalists of the 1920s, this was not an undifferentiated insistence on ignorance, but rather a belief that certain types of ignorance must be maintained for young
people specifically.  As many conservative Protestants did not—and do not—object to the teaching of evolution
to older students, so LaHaye famously celebrated sex knowledge for some audiences.  In his 1976 book, The Act of Marriage, LaHaye promoted frank, explicit knowledge of sex for adult married couples.

This distinction between young unmarried people and married couples runs throughout current conservative Protestant thinking about sex education.  Ministries such as Joe Beam’s Family Dynamics promote knowledge about sex, but only within a traditional marriage.

For such Christian conservatives, knowledge as such is not dangerous, but the boundaries around knowledge must be vigorously defended.

The notion that young people must be protected from certain types of knowledge has powerful influence beyond the ranks of Protestant fundamentalists.  Recently, the US Supreme Court ruled in Brown v.
Entertainment Merchants Association
(2010) that the state of California could not ban violent video games for those under eighteen years of age.  The Court agreed that such a ban violated the game-makers’ First Amendment right to free speech.

Justice Clarence Thomas made a curious rejoinder.  In his dissenting opinion, he argued that California could ban violent video games because the founding generation believed in and rigidly enforced parents’ ability to severely curtail the outer bounds of knowledge accessible to their children.

Thomas argued that the founding generation demanded strong control over what young people could know.
He stated, “Adults [in the founding era] carefully controlled what they published for children.  Stories written for children were dedicated to moral instruction and were relatively austere, lacking details that might titillate children’s minds.”

Like LaHaye and the 1920s anti-evolutionists, Thomas insisted on the educational tradition of promoting, defending, and enforcing ignorance.  Certain topics, especially concerning sex, violence, and religiously charged notions such as evolution, must not be broached with young people.  There is an inherent danger, according to this line of thinking, in the merest exposure of young people to such forms of knowledge.  In this view, schools join parents as gatekeepers of such forbidden forms of knowledge.  The role of the school, parent, and society, is to become active purveyors of constructed ignorance for young people.