I am an omnivorous ignoramus. I know that this sounds like the caption in a freeze-frame of Wiley Coyote, but it’s true. I am desperate to learn, even if, after fifty years of gorging myself on literature, history, music, and science, I don’t have much to show for it.
I’m in good company. The exemplar of our species was Plato’s Socrates. At his best he was unpleasant, hounding Athenians, picking their brains, sure only that he knew less than they thought they did. Having enough of that, they put an end to his feasting with one final draught.
Our kind often comes to a bad end. Nevertheless, we can be useful. We build bridges for others even as we burn our own. Philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote that humanity could be divided into hedgehogs and foxes. He quotes Archilochus, another old Greek, who wrote “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” The hedgehog is the specialist, the expert in his field. The fox is the jack-of-all-trades, the intellectual drifter, the dilettante. Ignoramuses aren’t content with the hedgehog’s life. We want to know about, well, lots of stuff.
I fear that the omnivorous ignoramus may be an endangered species. Maybe I’ll blame the Internet. When we all have an on-ramp to the information highway, knowledge seems a click away. Wanting to know things, wanting to have a deep understanding of a variety of subjects, is as quaint as wishing to commit to memory stanzas of Coleridge.
Those Gnostics we hear about lately weren’t modest enough to join us, but they got one thing right. Gnostics differed from the orthodox in their view of what was wrong with humanity. The orthodox believed that humanity was sinful. The Gnostics believed that humanity was ignorant. The cure for sin is grace. The cure for ignorance is knowledge. Paul the orthodox said “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The ignoramus says tell me more.
The orthodox say that sin is the source of evil in the world. They cite not only chapter and verse but also history in their brief. The Holocaust was an extraordinary evil. We agree. The Nazis weren’t stupid; they were bad, and we agree.
But I believe that ignorance enables complicity with evil. Genocide proceeds when other people are busy. Individuals and institutions do their worst with the shades drawn. Evil requires inattention.
I worry about college students who hope to matriculate only to join the ranks of CEOs. I worry about educators and politicians who say we should teach a narrow range of skills to prepare young people for the future, as if the future were one knowable place. I worry about us all when we sit, incurious, waiting for the next entertainment, as if entertainment were more fun than knowing.
I believe that it is important to learn, to keep learning, and to learn for learning’s sake. I believe that our survival depends on cultivating this, our true nature.
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