This I Believe

Mike - Coronado, California
Entered on August 2, 2006

Arrogance is a Function of Ignorance

Back in high school, I had a knack for predicting the questions for the quizzes in my senior year English class and usually aced them. But one day I was off.

The homework assignment was the short story, “The Celestial Omnibus” by E.M. Forster. As usual, I read it at the last minute over lunch right before class. There didn’t seem to be much to the story and all of the questions I anticipated were very straightforward. I went in confident.

But the quiz was something else entirely. I remember fidgeting in my chair, thinking “What is the point of this question and that question? Of what relevance are they? This is ridiculous.” After the quiz, we went over each question. I got all of them wrong and was incensed. If the teacher had asked good questions, I would have done better, as usual, I was sure. I raised my hand and impudently commented to everyone that this quiz was not up to standard and, in fact, the questions were pretty meaningless.

The teacher politely acknowledged my protest and then led the class in a discussion of the assignment. Eventually it became painfully clear that one of the main thrusts of the story was arrogance — specifically, arrogance over a topic of which one was ignorant. I had completely missed this and so the quiz questions, which precisely addressed this key issue, escaped me. Kindly, the teacher didn’t embarrass me further, he didn’t have to; I had made the point. It was obvious to everyone, including me, that I was an excellent example of one who was “arrogant in his ignorance,” solidly driving Forster’s point home.

Since then I have seen arrogance and ignorance go hand-in-hand all too often. It seems that as human beings we tend to be the surest, the most cocky about topics of which we have little real objective information. When tangible data and reasoned arguments come into play, with the nuance, complexity and ambiguity of the real world, humility should be the result, not cocksureness.

One might have expected less cockiness in the information age but there seems to be a lot of arrogance in the world today, doesn’t there? Perhaps we are splintering more and more into little groups, each with its own knowledge. Each only hearing what it wants to hear and so we remain ignorant but are less and less aware of that ignorance. We only watch the news with the spin we like; we only visit the websites that reinforce our limited views. And so more information paradoxically leads to more ignorance; and more ignorance sets the stage for more arrogance and all that that implies. This, right when we need real knowledge, empathy, patience and wisdom.

I believe that E.M. Forster and my high school English teacher were right: when you see arrogance, suspect ignorance. And when you feel arrogance in yourself, think again and consider the possibility that you might be missing something. Maybe your like that impudent student in English class I was that day, missing the big picture and arrogant precisely because of your ignorance.