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arrogance of ignorance

On more than one occasion my essays for The Imaginative Conservative have been inspired by bumper stickers. Many moons ago, for instance, I wrote “The Wisdom and Wickedness of Women” in response to seeing a bumper sticker declaring that “Well Behaved Women Do Not Make History.” Recently, sitting in traffic, I saw this very same bumper sticker on the car in front of me, beside another which declared the following: “What you call the Liberal Elite, we call being well-educated.” The juxtaposition of these two stickers, carefully selected by the car’s owner to teach me a lesson, set me thinking. I might even say that it taught me a valuable lesson, though not the lesson that my neighbor in the car in front of me meant to teach me.

Let’s take the second bumper sticker first. Clearly designed to offend other motorists, it is supremely supercilious and extremely arrogant. We, the average Joe, whoever we may be, are not as “well-educated” as the royal “we” driving the car in front of us. This pompous “we,” who is presumably a she, presumes that anyone who disagrees with her is poorly educated, whereas she, of course, is well-educated. If we were as well-educated as she, we would agree with her.

To be fair to her, she is basing her presumption on data that shows that those who are “well-educated” tend to vote for the Democrats whereas those who are less “educated” tend to vote Republican. She votes Democrat because she is well-educated. We, who are presumed to be Republicans (because we are presumed to be stupid), complain that those who are better educated than us (and are therefore better than us) are part of an elite.

The problem is that her education is not as good as she thinks it is. If she was educated in our secular system, she would have learned nothing whatsoever about theology, presuming that, if there is a God, he, or probably she, agrees with us. If he or she does not agree with us, he or she can go to hell. And, of course, we can tell God to go to hell because he or she is made in our image (we are not made in his/hers) and we can do what we like with him or her. In short, we can treat God with the same arrogance and superciliousness with which we treat our neighbor: “What God calls sin, we call being well-educated.”

The-Greek-Philosophers-greek-mythology-18310907-500-334If she was educated in our secular system, she will know nothing of philosophy, or, if she does, she will believe that there was no philosophy worth taking seriously before René Descartes. She will know nothing of the philosophy of the Greeks, of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and still less of the great Christian philosophers, such as Augustine or Aquinas. Insofar as she’s even heard of these people, she will presume that they did not know what they were talking about: “What the ancient philosophers call error, we call being well-educated.”

If she was educated in our secular system, she will know nothing of history, or, if she does, she will know it only from her own twenty-first century perspective, or from the twenty-first century perspective of those who taught it to her. History is not about learning from the people of the past, their triumphs and their mistakes, but is about sitting in judgment on the stupidity of our ancestors, who are presumed to be unenlightened, or at least not as enlightened as she is or her teachers are. “What the people of the past believed to be immoral, we call being well-educated.”

If she was educated in our secular system, she will know nothing of great literature, or, if she does, she will have misread it from the perspective of her own twenty-first century pride and prejudice, or from the proud and prejudiced twenty-first century perspective of those who taught her. She would not think of trying to read the great authors of the past through their own eyes because, living in the past, such authors lack the sense and sensibility which she has. “What Jane Austen calls pride and prejudice, we call being well-educated.”

Once we understand what being “well-educated” actually means in the deplorably illiterate age in which we find ourselves, we are not surprised to find these two bumper stickers side by side. One who is “educated” in this way, will obviously believe that “well-behaved women do not make history.” What we, the uneducated, call bad behavior, the liberal elite call being well-educated.

Liberal-Well-Educated-Bumper-Sticker-(7347)To be “well-educated” is to be ignorant of theology, philosophy, history and the great books of civilization. It is to believe that we have nothing to learn from the Great Conversation that has animated human discourse for three millennia. It is to treat our neighbor in the car next to us with supercilious and scornful contempt, presuming that he is stupid because he is not as “well-educated” as we. It is to treat the greatest minds and the most brilliant writers in history with contempt because they are not as “well-educated” as we. In short, to be “well-educated” is not merely ignorance, it is the arrogance of ignorance.

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48 replies to this post
  1. The line “Well-behaved women seldom make history” was originally a sentence in an article by historican Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. She was writing on Puritan funerals and commenting on how virtuous women were usually unknown to history, despite having so much influence in their own spheres. She was surprised when someone contacted her (in the 90s) asking for permission to put the sentence on a t-shirt, and stunned when it became a common bumper sticker. She eventually wrote a book of the same title, explaining her perspective and highlighting some amazing women in history such as Christine de Pizan.

    I’m pretty sure LTU would find the second sticker pompous and arrogant.

    • My favorite bumper sticker is “I Think, Therefore I am Liberal.” Mind you, this person did not place this sticker on the bumper of their car, but rather on the driver’s side door.

  2. It’s not arrogant to embrace Einstein’s relativity as superseding Newtonian physics. It’s a much better model of how the universe actually works. To be educated is to understand the development of knowledge in the modern era has confirmed many of man’s ancient intuitions, and overturned many others (while the jury is still out on many more). Einstein’s superior theory in no way diminishes the towering intellect of Isaac Newton, though; Einstein “stood on the shoulders” of Newton and many other brilliant thinkers before him in order to advance knowledge as he did.

    To read your article, one suspects we’d be chided for “looking down on” old Newton. His ideas have been replaced, upgraded, and we no longer rely on Newtonian formulas when precision matters. Similarly, the educated “look down on” theology, and the intuition of a god or god’s, especially immanent ones, as untenable in light of knowledge we’ve developed over the last few centuries. To dispense with that is no more “arrogant” that to forego Newtonian physics for GR/SR when designing a new satellite GPS system.

    As for the “well-behaved women”, the same point applies — to be educated on history is to understand that the pattern pointed to in that bumper sticker (and exceptions apply, but only prove the rule) obtains across cultures and millennia, unfortunately. To miss this or ignore this social dynamic is to misunderstand the story of human males and females in our civilization. If such a position is to be classified as “arrogant”, if understanding derived from scientific and inter-subjective methods is somehow a form of condescension, so be it.

    • I doubt the average well-educated liberal has an actual grasp of the equations of relativity and said theory hardly makes belief in God untenable, but rather supports it.

    • The problem is that some imagine that reason — or should I say “Reason” — is sovereign. Any notion the self-anointed intelligentsia proclaim to be reasonable and good is supposed to have a mandate to supplant existing policies, no matter that those policies represent generations of experience.

      The problem is that no single individual is smart enough to foresee all the ramifications of his nifty idea. Central planning sounds good (at least to a certain type), but is a disaster in practice.

  3. Please, explain to me the “knowledge we’ve developed over the last centuries” which makes a scientific disproof of the immanence of God.

    Which experiments were run? What conditions were being tested for? How does one build an instrument to measure immanence, and in what units are its results?

    • God is not a scientific concept, there is no model to disprove, just superstition and intuition. Rather than disproving God, then, knowledge garnered over the past 500 years just makes God irrelevant, superfluous. Laplace’s way to put it: “I have no need of that hypothesis”.

      Asking for instrumentation and experiments on intuitions that don’t admit of such and aren’t subject to them in any case is pointless. To suppose this is how that matter would be pursued is to understand modern science, religious superstitions or both.

      • Empiricism, as an epistemology, was already destroyed by the ancient Greeks, long before David Hume demonstrated that on the basis of atheism, knowledge of the external world or anything other than one’s own perceptions, is impossible. Indeed, the post-modernist fad of the last decades has only confirmed that epistemological skepticism and irrationalism are the inevitable fruit of the “Enlightenment” project.

        That Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the rest of the village atheists cling to such an outmoded view of knowledge only shows that they haven’t even gotten to the middle ages, past the ancients, much less joined the 21st Century. But such ignorance is exactly what is to be expected, as this article astutely points out, in light of the state of contemporary academia.

        So, to bring you up to date, the naive empiricism of the 18 and 19th centuries, that attempts to base all knowledge on observation and experiment is self-contradictory and unscientific! Science as a method that produces knowledge can only function if a number of metaphysical, non-scientific truths, are presupposed. Things such as the uniformity of nature, the rationality of nature, the correspondence of the mind’s internal perception of things with an objectively existing external world, the universal validity of logic and mathematics (i.e., the existence of unchanging, non-material entities, such as the laws of logic and math), and more. None of the a priori truths needed for science to be a rational, self-sustaining enterprise can be proven by empirical or scientific means. In fact, every one of them are inconsistent with the materialist view that only matter and energy exist. If atheism is true, then the universe is not the kind of place where science would be possible.

        Really, the explanatory power of atheism is completely inadequate to even support it’s own means of knowledge. A pretty pathetic excuse for a worldview, in fact.

        As a PhD holding professor of over 20 years who has taught many, many, masters level students, graduates of our university system, I must heartily agree with the view of this article. Not only do many of our students arrive mostly ignorant of the basics of our cultural heritage and history, they usually require remedial courses in how to do basic research and writing. Believe me, I’ve read hundreds of exams and term papers written by graduates of the full-range of undergraduate schools, private, state, and from all over the U.S.A. Most faculty I know dread grading for the simple reason that the average college graduate has little idea how to right a coherent and sustained essay, arguing a thesis. That a graduate program has to teach students how to research, write, and critically think for the first time is beyond appalling, yet it is the everyday reality of graduate school faculty.

        But of course, that is the point. Higher education today is no longer a place to interact with a diversity of ideas, to be challenged intellectually and emotionally with one’s preconceived notions. It is now a place for coddling and protecting students from ideas deemed too dangerous – ideas such as the priority of liberty and individual responsibility over collectivist submission to authority, that human rights come from a transcendent source and are thus unalienable rather than being creations of the state or “social convention”, that the state exists to protect pre-existing rights rather than dispense rights deemed correct by an elite, that personal moral virtue and social justice must either stand or fall together, that sexual deviance is measured by objective and unchanging moral standards, that tolerance means defending the right of others to disagree with your views and express such disagreement without fear of loss of livelihood or freedom.

        Really, the only reason that the left continues to hold such sway is its success in creating an education system that largely leaves the population ignorant and thus, easily manipulated. It’s almost enough to make one ashamed of being a part of academia. Almost.

  4. “If civilization had been left in female hands, we would still be living in grass huts.”

    No, not Donald Trump. Only a militant feminist and lesbian would be allowed to say that and live.

    • Totally agree. It’s a shame I won’t be around to see all of the tattoos of this generation fade into that nondescript blue like an old sailor, and sag into some rather interesting formations. They’ll look like a group of senior escapees from a prison chain gang.

  5. The pseudo-intellectual has been around for ages. This person is iconoclastic, and looks down not really on everybody else but on others who do not share similar left-wing beliefs. It’s a bit of a show, impressive to those truly less educated in how to spot hype. Just think, that person is really parroting somebody else. Now is that the result of a good education?

  6. If we can draw conclusions from bumper stickers ,admittedly a dubious proposition, it would seem that there has been a shift in how liberals view themselves. I remember when the most prominent liberal bumper sticker was the following: You Can’t Hug Children With Nuclear Arms. This was display of conspicuous compassion. Liberals weren’t necessarily smarter than the rest of us, they just had bigger hearts.

    This change may point to the nature of current conservatism. When the most prominent conservative commentators were Bill Buckley, George Will, and Pat Buchanan, it was very difficult to present conservatism as a world view for the simple and uneducated. Currently when one thinks of conservatism names like Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, and Sarah Palin come to mind. In this context it is understandable that many youthful Leftists would be ignorant of the fact that conservatism has a rigorous and intellectual tradition. Some form of liberal/Left thought becomes the default position for many folks.

    Lowbrow conservatism may be entertaining, but it could have long term negative consequences for the political and intellectual life of our country. We need more Russell Kirk and less Fox News.

    • “You Can’t Hug Children With Nuclear Arms. This was display of conspicuous compassion. Liberals weren’t necessarily smarter than the rest of us, they just had bigger hearts.”

      Nah, they’re just better at the “Moral vanity” game. Another sticker that used to annoy me was the old (usually attached to the back of a Volvo, being driven by a teacher’s union member) “It will be great day when the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber and the schools get all the money they need”. I mean, Oh the Sanctimony!

      Of course, the obvious retort was “Without the Air Force (and Army, Navy, and Marines), those schools would be teaching their kids in Russian (or German or Japanese)”

  7. Exactly. I would argue that today we are amongst the LEAST enlightened human beings that have walked the earth. We are educated today to be more productive workers, and not necessarily to understand what our culture is about. Ask 10 different “well educated” persons what Western Civilization really is, and you will likely get 10 different answers. We are not better educated, we are better “trained”.

    • Agree. Many young people today especially confuse the knowledge “Siri” has with their own knowledge. They seem to feel that their ability to have an opinion on a subject, or to hit a few buttons an obtain an opinion on something equates with knowledge. If you ask them the basis for this opinion, what books they have read which led to this conclusion, courses taken, research done, they have no answer. I proved to my son recently how little he actually knew when he informed me that he was smarter and more knowledgeable than I was. I sat him down in a chair in front of others, and told him I was only doing this because he so obviously needed it. I started with Philosophy, – Who was Socrates, Descartes, Kant, St Augustine, etc…..then Literature….name a work by Dickens, Chaucer, Dostoyevsky, etc. then science, what is the atomic weight of Hydrogen, . I went through all of the major disciplines with rapid fire questions, and he became very quiet. I explained if he was really knowledgeable he would not only know who these people were, he would be able to answer the questions, and that the surest way to remain stupid is to believe one knows everything. A wise man can learn even from a fool, but a fool cannot learn from a wise man. Most people who think they are well educated are fools.

      • Cheryl, you gave your son a great gift that day. It’s difficult for many millennials to take being corrected well; we’re told we’re so perfect and wonderful that criticism breaks us. Which is a shame, because finding out how much we don’t know saves us from ennui and apathy.

  8. I just submitted a comment on Eva Brann’s “The Imaginative Conservatism of Education”. Look it up once it clears and gets posted. It even quotes this morning’s news.

  9. Excellent article, and excellent discussion after. (Well, most of the discussion was excellent…the one attack on the article is mostly forgettable).

  10. On the news this morning, I heard that San Antonio was getting a pre-K through college program together. The idea is to fast-track people for jobs.

    Yes, that’s what it’s all about–jobs. I remember teaching chemistry to pre-nursing candidates in a state college setting 14 years ago. Become a respiratory nurse, it was $100,000 a year back then. Or going back around 28 years, I remember a young lady in college that had been in my organic lab (we were both students) telling me that she had been accepted to medical school in Chicago, and that doctors made $80,000 per year. Nothing about helping people, just the paycheck, although who knows what else she had in mind. STEM–science, technology, engineering, and mathematics–now THAT’S where the jobs are.

    If you don’t like science, you can always become an MBA, or a lawyer. Morals? Ethics? Culture? Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle? Religion? Those are so outdated.

    It’s too bad. Like the Nazis, we can become scientific and efficient, yet lose our moral, religious, and cultural grounding. And look where that leads.

    • The flip side is – if they’re studying science or engineering, then at least their brains aren’t being polluted by left wing brainwashing.

  11. For years on my first political blog I had a label for posts on my reaction to slogans, especially bumperstickers. “Bumpersticker Politics”. Look for the great Mark Steyn article where he says “Life Isn’t a Bumper Sticker” I liked I so much, I actually had a sticker made that said “Life Is Not A Bumper Sticker”.

    • On a related note, you rarely see bumper stickers on GOOD cars. Generally speaking, the rattier the car, the more likely it is to be festooned with stickers.

      Also, someone once addressed the issue of tattoos, particularly on women. He said “An attractive woman getting a tattoo is like putting a bumper sticker on a Ferrari.”

  12. It’s funny that the “Well-behaved women…” bumper sticker galls you so badly. For me, it is a gentle, tongue-in-cheek call to be more bold and to move beyond what is comfortable and safe. To move beyond expectations and do what is right and just and useful. Most of the great men remembered by history were also not well-behaved by the expectations of their times. Jesus of Nazareth was most certainly not “well-behaved” in the eyes of the Roman Empire and the Jewish priesthood. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were not “well-behaved” in the eyes of the British crown. Martin Luther. Nelson Mandela. Abraham Lincoln. All rather disruptive and ultimately history-making. I can understand why the phrase seems to reflect narcissism and arrogance when placed in the context of the second sticker. But it need not always mean that.

  13. Your point is well taken, Rebecca. There may be a knee jerk reaction to equate that bumper sticker slogan with secular Leftism. Perhaps the best modern example of one that slogan can mean would the witness of Dorothy Day. She “misbehaved” in the best possible way- by feeding the poor, clothing the naked and doing all she could to beat swords into ploughshares. She made history, by not setting out to do so.

  14. The article is as a double edged sword. Some of the comments show that many got the dull side of the blade.

  15. What the first bumper sticker is actually implying is notoriety or having some mention in historical works. The “making” of history is almost exclusively the result of actions by those whose names we never knew or have long forgotten. It is this understanding of that phraseology that is implied by Ms. Ulrich; that well-behaved women are primarily responsible for “making” history. Without them what we would have is chaos..

  16. “… I am no more awed by the flying fashions among prigs than I am by the flying fashions among snobs. Snobs say they have the right kind of hat; prigs say they have the right kind of head. But in both cases I should like some evidence beyond their own habit of staring at themselves in the glass.”

    –On Psuedo-Scientific Books, G. K. Chesterton

  17. This is the twentieth century. The (probably) female whose bumper salutes misbehaving women was not putting in a plug for Dorothy Day Joan of Arc, or the gal who brandishes the tambourine
    for the Salvation Army.

  18. I come in late, as always.
    While I strictly agree with the large amount of presumption and overall rudeness of the bumper sticker, I must disagree with the strength Mr. Pearce puts behind his assertions.
    While I will never doubt that many “well educated liberals” will have such a mediocrity of an education as described, I know many that do not. In my public, secular High School we had a Humanities class where we discussed the Great Books (incl. Dante, Chaucer, Aquinas, etc.) and used the Socratic method. In some of the public universities I applied to (but did not attend) they also had Great Books programs some of which specifically looked at Plato and Aristotle, etc. Indeed, I can say there are many among the secular liberals who do indeed know their pre-Enlightenment literature (who do you think are teaching the classes?) and while they may dismiss some of their points, they may actually quite admire them.

  19. Another word for “educated” is “Indoctrinated.” Many institutes of higher learning are also bastions of liberalism. So the more “educated” some become, the more left-leaning. Education comes in many forms. Institutional education rarely inculcates wisdom. Life does that. So I would propose that the “Liberal Elite” may be educated, but their wisdom is unproven. I won’t get into the discussion about the over-educated… But arrogance is rarely a good teacher.

  20. I believe the English were less presumptuous and used the word ‘schooled’ instead of ‘educated’. I’ve met many folks who are schooled and not educated, and many who are educated and not schooled.

  21. “To be fair to her, she is basing her presumption on data that shows that those who are “well-educated” tend to vote for the Democrats whereas those who are less “educated” tend to vote Republican.”

    This article of faith among the Left, should have been exploded after this most recent election when the New York Times exit polls showed that uneducated non-whites voted Democrat at a higher percentage than did educated non-whites.

    Of course it should not come as a shock that ‘educated’ people tend to vote Democrat, considering most universities have been taken over by socialists and progressives, both of whom tend to have difficulty finding remunerative work in the private sector. The American university system has become a state subsidized sanctuary for those who haven’t yet figured out how to produce anything of value to the rest of us.

  22. Your point is well taken, but I have to say, you’re painting with a broad brush, perhaps too broad a brush. That’s understandable given that a writer is allowed some rhetorical flourishes, but it’s not wholly accurate.

    I attended NYU in recent years, one of the foremost stars in our secular academic sky, and still I had classes in which we read Aquinas, Augustine, Plato and other Greeks, among others of the Western canon.

    The academic world is not entirely identity politics and social justice, even now.

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