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Our Collective Hatred of Ignorance

There has never been a time in human history when knowledge was so readily available to the average person. The vast annals of the Internet beckon to each person with infinite possibility. But this limitless compendium, despite its many good qualities, has its dangers as well. Karl Taro Greenfeld explained some of these drawbacks in a New York Times article last Saturday:

What we all feel now is the constant pressure to know enough, at all times, lest we be revealed as culturally illiterate. So that we can survive an elevator pitch, a business meeting, a visit to the office kitchenette, a cocktail party, so that we can post, tweet, chat, comment, text as if we have seen, read, watched, listened. What matters to us, awash in petabytes of data, is not necessarily having actually consumed this content firsthand but simply knowing that it exists — and having a position on it, being able to engage in the chatter about it. We come perilously close to performing a pastiche of knowledgeability that is really a new model of know-nothingness.

He is right to point out that our knowledge is often of a shallow sort: the kind that’s gleaned from a swift perusal of headlines, or a lunchtime browsing of 140-character tweets. But even if our knowledge is elementary, it is necessary that we have it. Ignorance—or at least, a humble acknowledgment of ignorance—is largely taboo. If we are ignorant about something, it’s usually best to hide it.

Leah Libresco noted in a recent TAC article that the satiating of curiosity via Google has encouraged a pervasive ignorance-guilt in our culture. Libresco notes that the website “Let Me Google That For You” (LMGTFY.com) “exists to rebuke those who ask a friend something that they should have googled … The unstated premise is that asking for help is a rude imposition, one that reveals incompetence or laziness.”

Outside the realm of friendship, this fear of “incompetence” seems to run very deep. In the career world, it’s almost dangerous to be ignorant. When writing resumes, going to job interviews, talking to colleagues, or chatting at happy hours, we must be—above all else—knowledgeable. It seems imperative that we know the code words, the vague cultural or technical references. And in the larger cultural conversation, a minute awareness of the literary, musical, and artistic world is paramount to proper participation. “Whenever anyone, anywhere, mentions anything, we must pretend to know about it,” Greenfeld writes. “Data has become our currency.”

This cultural tendency is dangerous for a couple reasons. First, it encourages a deemphasis on “longhand” knowledge. But while a miniature collection of various facts and curiosities is a useful toolbox to have at one’s disposal, the best knowledge—the sort that guides our souls and enlightens our minds—ought to run a bit deeper. As Greenfeld notes, we must allow ourselves to be “lost in the actual cultural document itself,” whatever it might be, rather than the more popular alternative: “to mine [the document] for any valuable ore and minerals — data, factoids, what you need to know — and then trade them on the open market.”

Additionally, our emphasis on bloated erudition has created an atmosphere in which it seems impossible to say the words, “I don’t know.” They almost seem rude. They convey all the things our society despises: technological incompetence. Lack of erudition. Shallow-mindedness. Amateurishness. In this world, the ignorant are scorned—even if theirs is a thoughtful or humble ignorance.

Taking back the words “I don’t know” is important—for while such words can imply intentional ignorance or apathy, they can also signal a bevy of virtues: humility, teachability, an eagerness to truly learn. Unfortunately, a website like LMGTFY.com exists to deride and sneer at such humility. It leaves us thinking that, in a technological age, all knowledge—even the specialized sort—has become common knowledge. And in this world of common knowledge, humility is no longer a virtue anymore.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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