What separates the knowledgeable from the ignorant?

by The Editor

ARTICLE: It is difficult to think of two more different people than the person who pursues knowledge and the person who safeguards their own ignorance. If knowledge and its pursuit is not properly promoted and protected an entire society can become caught in ignorance’s false sense of comfort. Curiosity is curtailed, innovation stifled and difference outlawed, and that will bring an end to progress in turn. So it is well worth considering the question: What separates the knowledgeable from the ignorant?

What separates the knowledgeable from the ignorant?

By: Gareth van Onselen

25 September 2012

While the misuse of knowledge is a potential risk, the reward inherent to its acquisition is great. It is how we get closer to truth, understanding and self-awareness in turn. Ignorance is risk-aversion and its consequences are sure and definite. It is to embrace the ostensible safe haven mediocrity offers, which is to impose on aspiration and development a watertight seal.

Everyone is ignorant about something. No matter how intense one’s desire for knowledge or extensive one’s education, no one person can know everything. If there is one thing worth knowing, it is that simple fact; for it is the very foundation upon which wisdom is built.

Once a person has reconciled themselves with this, they are able to do two further things: first, understand their own limitations and, second, pursue that knowledge which they have not yet acquired.

That is ignorance as the absence of knowledge but it is possible to understand ignorance differently. Rather than a description of a certain state of affairs, to view it as an attitude – a particular and hostile approach to knowledge and its pursuit.

And while the former is merely an objective truth, the latter is surely an indictment. To deliberately shut out knowledge is not only to close one’s mind to some external reality, but to one’s inner universe. And that is to ensure that potential is checked, if not arrested completely.

Just as any one person cannot be all-knowing, outside of the basic fundamentals – the tools necessary to learn in the first place – one must exercise some discretion as to what one chooses to become knowledgeable about. The enormous amount of information in the world often means more work is required to distinguish insight from inanity.

But, whatever that choice, it is the attitude that accompanies such a desire which sets aside a person willing to learn from one with a closed mind. Those interested in knowledge are both self-aware and alert to the world around them, authentically curious, and their lives will always be the richer for it.

What is the emotional impulse that underpins an ignorant attitude? It has to do with responsibility, insecurity and a lack of curiosity.

On the one hand, education is an opportunity only realised when properly pursued. Often, it is onerous and, thus, requires time and effort. With that comes responsibility, a burden eased by curiosity, increased by apathy. On the other hand, knowledge has consequences. To understand something is to introduce into one’s worldview new information, the effect of which might well be profound and far reaching. That, in turn, might necessitate a change in one’s attitude and behaviour – and anything that impacts on our sense of who we are is often interpreted as a threat. Low self esteem ensures we safeguard that little space we know well against the unknown, regardless of its potential reward and or its benefit to others, which is plain to see.

It is understandable, then, that, when pushed, the first choice of many people is to pursue those intellectual curiosities that relate to the world around them, re-enforcing rather than challenging or elaborating on that which they already know. And rarely do people volunteer any meaningful introspection of their own psyche, choosing rather the ignorant bliss which has always so comforted them.

It is curious fact that the ignorant are usually self-assured; for they have confused understanding with conviction and mistaken opinion for reason, as if sheer force-of-will constitutes an acceptable substitute for either argument or rationality. Inevitably, they deal in absolutes, clichés and stereotypes. Whereas those interested in ideas are always open to persuasion and their conviction is based entirely on the veracity of the evidence on which their position is based.

Any person has the right to choose ignorance over knowledge. But it is fair to argue one has a duty in the other direction: to seek out knowledge and embrace understanding.

Likewise, a society that values education and learning is one where potential and opportunity abound (and the state has a particular obligation in this regard). Innovation flourishes and ideas are cherished. Ultimately, it is one where change and progress enjoy a special relationship.

Ignorant societies are static and unchanging. Responsibility is shunned and knowledge often interpreted as little more than a threat to the status quo.

The difference between the two is a desire to see potential realised.

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