I suppose it’s good that I’m surprised by what I don’t know almost as often as I am by what seems to have escaped other people.
“Ignorant” is a kind of general, all-encompassing category when you’re describing somebody. I don’t think I’m ignorant as a rule. It’s more that I lack essential and meaningful information about certain kinds of things, like combustion engines or how to use ChatGPT to write this newsletter.
An area where I’ve taken some pride in my comparative lack of ignorance is in the area of geography. (I first saw those maps in grade school and couldn’t stop looking.) That means that I’m also aware—somewhere near the periphery of my consciousness—that maps often get the scale of countries wrong, and sometimes even exaggerate their size and significance in the scheme of things, to the mapmaker’s advantage.
Still I was surprised to discover the apparent enormity of the African nation of Sudan (much in the news this week for its outbreak of political violence). Not only was I unaware that Sudan is the third largest country in Africa by area, I was equally surprised to learn that Algeria (of all places) covers the most ground on that continent. So I guess this brought some light to another corner that was darkened by my ignorance, at least until “this week’s realizations” get pushed to the side by more pressing information in need of my limited “mind space” and I “forget” all about these countries’ comparative size (“What was that about Sudan and Algeria?”).
As this anecdote hopefully illustrates, “ignorance” comes and goes in certain domains and is best viewed from several different vantage points if you’re interested in discovering its origins and impacts.
In recent annals, few have taken on this task more delightfully and accessibly than Peter Burke in Ignorance: a Global History, a book whose opening is like encountering a familiar yet mysterious world. Despite the considerable weight of being an emeritus professor of cultural history at the University of Cambridge, Burke uses his “senior status” to have curious fun with the voluminous dimensions of our “ignorance,” including (but not limited to) listing 40 different ways in which it manifests itself in the book’s appendix.
This can be a bad thing (just when you thought matters couldn’t get any worse, here’s more varieties of stupidity) but also a good thing (like with Sudan, it can be helpful that ignorance returns in some areas so we have room for more pressing information).
I have to admit. At least at first, I wasn’t drawn to Burke’s “global history” by regular confrontations with my own ignorance. It was because of all those other people’s thoughtlessness.
For example, I’m still boggled by the recent revelations that a 21-year old, at a military reserve unit, could not only have access to materials from the NSA and Joint Chiefs of Staff but also take them home to share with his gamer friends. I understand that “information technology specialists” need some system access to do their jobs, but how can any “journeyman” with this role “play with” top secret information, entirely undetected, for months without our senior, so-called “intelligence” officials knowing about it? After all, we’re talking some high-level and pretty consequential ignorance here. And where the initial reports were about security breaches from earlier this year, the New York Times reported yesterday that they began shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and went undetected for 14 months!
I know I’m not alone in facing news like this everyday and wondering out loud, really, have we fallen this far? (One newspaper columnist observed this week: “The U.S. has become a country where fantastic events occur almost weekly.” And while he ascribed this escalating problem to a lack of accountability on the part of our public servants, it is hard to miss that “the ignorance factor”—willful or otherwise—is also at regular play nearly everywhere we look.)
In addition, on nearly every “cultural issue,” all sides of these divides have no doubt whatsoever that everybody who sees the situation differently is an idiot. So on top of my own shortcomings, I also feel that I’m confronted by other people’s ignorance more often than I used to be—but on either score (mine or theirs), am I really?
Burke’s book puts all kinds of helpful qualifiers around this answer, and I’d like to share a few of them with you so that you might pick up his fascinating book to discover even more of them too.
One of the concerns driving Professor Burke to grapple with human ignorance in the first place was his alarm about all of the knowledge we used to have but have somehow managed to lose in little more than our own lifetimes. As one of his book reviewers quoted and then summarized:
‘Although we are well aware that we know much that earlier generations did not, we are much less conscious of what they knew that we do not,’ [Burke notes]. He is especially troubled by our impressive ignorance of geography [again], history, religion (our own and others’) and the Greek and Roman classics.
These losses, taken one by one, may seem trifling, but together they indicate a loss of multiple perspectives that compound our already limited frames of reference. For example, almost any amount of historical perspective might convince us that our safety, health and economic circumstances are better today than ever, qualifying at least some of the doom-and-gloom that seems to oppress everyone. You think our politics are fraught or our families dysfunctional, read some Sophocles or Aeschylus.
Moreover, how could we ever hope to understand places like the Middle or Far East, with deep ethical and religious traditions that (in material ways) could not be more different from ours, without more knowledge and curiosity about them?
That America could “ride to the rescue” in places like Iraq and Afghanistan (yesterday) or Taiwan (tomorrow) without more knowledge than we have today about the roles that religion and ethical tradition play in such places is the essence of Ancient Greece’s notion of hubris—or as Burke would say, the kind of ignorance where we’re arrogant enough to think that we actually “know better.” Even though we’re aware that these kinds of knowledge exist, through “selection bias” and “delusions of grandeur,” we simply decline to tap into them.
In this regard, he writes scathingly about “the full spectrum ignorance” of the Vietnam War in which civilian policymakers, military commanders, the public, the press, and even the soldiers on the ground could not speak the cultural language of either their allies or enemies. We knew it was different there, could have learned “that language” but chose not to, then adding to our folly in exactly the same ways—this kind of fatal repetition, the definition of insanity—in Iraq and Afghanistan.
According to Professor Burke, the assault of 24/7 “news coverage,” which places more information at our fingertips than ever, leads to an equally confounding kind of ignorance.
If foreign policy and other “experts” indulge in “active ignorance” (or refusal to be informed by the available information), he argues that far too many of the rest of us subscribe to what he calls “lay ignorance,” a kind of “passive resistance to intellectual labor of any kind.” Cosseting ourselves in feedback loops that reinforce “the limited amounts we think we already know” reinforces these essentially lazy impulses. That ignorance is bliss is similar: if I don’t know about it, it won’t bother me.
These particular flavors of ignorance sometimes operate in tandem with healthier, more intentional preferences. As I’ve argued in recent posts, the hour-after-hour assault of horrors, calamities and stupidities can cause us to “turn off the information switch”—or remain in the ignorant dark—because we know that our brains are simply not wired for “bad news” at volumes and magnitudes we are helpless to comprehend let alone respond to. This is how Burke characterizes the phenomenon:
In the past, a major reason for the ignorance of individuals was the fact that too little information was circulating in their society. Some knowledge was what the historian Martin Mulsow calls ‘precarious,’ recorded only in manuscripts and hidden away because the authorities in both church and state rejected it. Today, paradoxically enough, abundance has become a problem known as ‘information overload.’ Individuals experience a ‘deluge’ of information and are often unable to select what they want or need, a condition that is also known as ‘filter failure.’ In consequence, our so-called ‘information age’ enables the spread of ignorance just as much as the spread of knowledge.
The key to countering “lay ignorance,” as well as a lapse into torpor or despair in the face of this onslaught, is for more of us to learn how to filter what we need to live and work today (and will need for living and working tomorrow) so that we remain hopeful enough to tackle whatever’s coming next.
There are many more varieties and permutations of ignorance that Professor Burke invites us to explore. But I want to end today with some more of his observations about geography, along with a couple of my own.
Despite Thomas Friedman’s contention that the world is “flatter” these days and therefore more accessible to us than ever, it is hard to overstate how little most of us know about almost anywhere else. Writes Burke, we have not even begun to crack the surface of humanity’s ignorance in this regard:
It would be fascinating to read a global study of what people in each part of the world did not know about the rest, but such a study would depend on a multitude of monographs that have not yet been written. What follows will therefore concentrate on the ignorance of Europeans concerning the world beyond them, as well as discussing their lack of knowledge about Europe itself. [emphasis mine]
Burke notes, with some amusement, that “Westerners like us” have sometimes even admitted their cluelessness about the substance of the “great global game” they were playing. For example, a century and a half ago, after Europe’s great powers divided up the continent of Africa between them at the 1884-1885 Berlin Conference, Burke reports that the British prime minister (Lord Salisbury) felt obliged to admit that “we have been giving away mountains and lakes and rivers to each other, only hindered by the small impediment that we never knew exactly where the mountains, rivers and lakes were.” In the spirit of Salisbury’s remark, both America and the EU should leave to Ukraine the lions-share of determining “who should get what” at an eventual peace table with Russia.
I had a different perspective on European ignorance this weekend with Emily, who was visiting fresh from a recent trip to see friends in Vienna. At a party there with highly-educated young Austrians, she was struck by their “fixation” on America, their eagerness to interrogate her about America’s divides on guns, abortion, immigration etc., and to essentially charge her with complicity in a catalog of recent horrors. I tried to explain the ignorant place where this kind of rudeness came from (in part because I’ve unexpectedly found myself on the same kind of hot-seat when I’ve met similarly-fixated Brits, French and Germans).
For the duration of their lives, young Europeans have been inundated by what’s often been presented by their own compatriots as the superiority of American art, fashion, entertainment, advertising, money-making, Apple, Google, Tesla, Beyonce, LeBron James, Pee Wee Herman (you get the picture) and they either feel let down by America’s attendant shortcomings or derisive about them given America’s cultural dominance. You (Emily) or me (David) show up as “the American” and get their fixation/disappointment/derision tapes as if we embody all of these contradictory signals and are somehow responsible for the worst of them. In other words, these reactive Europeans are ignorant to turn any individual into a scapegoat for their home country’s sins just like it would be ignorant for either of us to impute (say) responsibility to these young Austrians for their grandparents’ Nazi encouragements.
But American travelers bring with them a kind of ignorance too, I told her. Americans are often startled by perceptions of them in Europe (and elsewhere) because we fail to appreciate just how dominant our culture has been and the resentments (along with occasional admiration) it engenders. We don’t know how we appear to strangers on the world’s stage, at least in part because we know so little about “the rest of the world” and our home country’s impact (for better and worse) upon it.
The best book review I read about Ignorance: A Global History was in the Washington Post because that review captured “how selective” our ignorance almost always tends to be—an aspect of this world-shaping phenomenon that Professor Burke returns to over and over again. The reviewer reaches his final, 5-star judgment by quoting Burke on how, by necessity, every society “focuses attention on a few features of reality at the expense of others,” and that the losers in this selection process are consigned to the dustbin of ignorance. But in illustrating this point, this reviewer gets personal, as if his own father had lived in a different country:
My father could identify edible mushrooms, point out the constellations, name all the varieties of trees in the woods and recognize the tracks of a dozen animals.
[Not so long ago] people, quite ordinary people, knew such things. No more. For many of us in the 21st century, the natural world mainly consists of pretty bushes along a hiking path. What matters to us instead is knowing how to use a computer and a cellphone. After all, we no longer need to learn anything ourselves when we have ‘influencers’ to guide us, chatbots to do our writing and every kind of information just a keystroke away. Somehow, though, I can’t help but wonder if the trade-off has been altogether worth it.
However much we think that we know, we can swallow a much-needed dose of modesty by never losing sight of all the ways that we choose to remain ignorant.
This post was adapted from my April 23, 2023 newsletter. Newsletters are delivered to subscribers’ in-boxes every Sunday morning, and sometimes I post the content from one of them here. You can subscribe (and not miss any) by leaving your email address in the column to the right.