In the most ambiguous sense, ignorance is defined as a lack of knowledge or information.
While ignorance has always had a bad reputation, and intelligence a good reputation, philosopher John Dewey credited ignorance with more respectability — “Genuine ignorance is profitable because it leads to humility, curiosity, and open-mindedness.”
Bookstores now have a section for dummies: The Internet for Dummies, Parenting for Dummies, Philosophy for Dummies, etc. Even the movie, Dumb and Dumber, was a big hit.
Practitioners of Zen strive to empty the mind so that new information can be allowed in.
Philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, wrote, “What you already know prevents you from acquiring new knowledge.”
Thinking like this should regard ignorance as a portal of entry allowing for our imagination and creativity to grow and blossom.
Children start out in life with a tabula rasa, an empty mind — a mind that see everything for the first time. Its ignorance should be encouraged, not discouraged.
Scientists view ignorance as a plus, not a minus. Doubt is their starting point, a challenge. Being certain of anything may become a thing of the past with the introduction of the chaos theory, relativity, and the adaptive plasticity of the brain.
Genuine ignorance may be catching on. At this time, no college or university offers a course in IGNORANCE 101.
Conversely, a liberal arts education consists of courses designed to prepare students for a fulfilling and meaningful life in a free society. Its paramount objective is to counteract the negative impact of ignorance.
Ignorance is Janus-faced. It all depends upon how it is used. If a physician is ignorant of the adverse side effects of a new antibiotic, and prescribes it for one of his patients, the result might have serious consequences. That points up the negative aspect of ignorance.
If a research scientist is totally ignorant of how a particular experiment should be approached, his lack of knowledge prevents him from being judgmental, biased, or critical of the new technique. It is possible that what the researcher knows from a previous similar experience was preventing him from adopting a new approach.
An anecdote that illustrates the benefit of ignorance involves a truck getting stuck under an overpass next to a mental hospital. While the driver was trying to figure out how to get his truck through the underpass, a patient from the hospital was watching his dilemma. After a few minutes, the patient shouted, ”Let some air out of the tires.” The driver took his advice and the truck was freed. The patient’s simple solution made all the difference.
In our society, the reputation of being ignorant is a source of embarrassment. Being referred to as intelligent is a compliment.
Perhaps we should redefine ignorance as a strength, rather than a weakness.
Adlai Stevenson, former presidential candidate, couched ignorance like this: “Not ignorance, but ignorance of ignorance, is the death of knowledge.” It takes more courage to boast your ignorance than brag about your intelligence.
Lastly, ignorance is not an anatomical body part like the heart, brain, liver or spleen. It is a behavioral trait. Not unlike one’s intelligence, ignorance raises questions that open mental doors making life an exciting journey.
Professor Eisenberg was born in New York City and now lives in Belleair Bluffs. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps in World War II. His career consisted of teaching interpersonal/intercultural communication, public speaking, organizational communication, nonverbal communication, group dynamics, and persuasion at four major universities including Pace University and Manhattanville College in New York. His publications include 19 textbooks on various aspects of communication. Send comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org.