On Ignorance

This is the first in a series of three posts which draw together some of the thinking, reading and conversations I’ve recently had. In this first post, I consider the issue of ignorance and how challenging ignorance should be one of the fundamental aims of schools.

In 1942, William Beveridge recognised ignorance as one of the ‘five giants’, a series of challenges which Britain needed to overcome after World War 2. Despite the widespread embrace of Beveridge’s report, not least by Clement Attlee’s reforming Labour government, many of the social ills identified by Beveridge persist.

Ignorance, which I define broadly as a lack of knowledge, is one of the worst forms of inequality, not only because it does so much to cause other social ills (want, disease, squalor and idleness, to use Beveridge’s list) but because it also plays a huge role in replicating inequality. Unless ignorance is challenged, inequality will persist.

Ignorance leads to a lack of agency and choice. Without knowledge and understanding of the world, it is not possible to fully engage in it. Apathy is in part born of ignorance. I would suggest ignorance may lead to certain views and opinions, but the relationship between knowledge and opinion is far more complicated than to suggest that educating everybody better will lead to everyone having the same views. Far from it, challenging ignorance is about sparking a better standard of debate rather than generating agreement.

Ignorance and apathy of course suit some people and some sections of society. When ignorance and apathy persist, the status quo goes unchallenged. That’s fine if you think the status quo is fine. Unfortunately ignorance stops people from evaluating the status quo properly to consider whether they want to change to change it, let alone having the tools to do so.

The relationship between ignorance, apathy and the status quo is especially pernicious though, in that a narrative exists in which people and communities are led to a self-narrative to legitimate inequality. I’ll never forget my late mother telling me that I shouldn’t really be trying to get into politics, because it wasn’t something which ‘people like us’ do. Although I am not a Marxist, I always had some sympathy for Paul Willis’ work, Learning to Labour, which highlighted how a hidden curriculum saw schools mirror industrial workplaces and led to cohort after cohort of disengaged, disaffected boys move from the classroom to the factory floor where they would show a similar apathy and lack of ambition.

It is this unchallenged narrative, where ignorance and inequality are legitimised, which gives all the more reason to use education to tackle ignorance. I say so while defining education in the liberal-humanist tradition. This isn’t explicitly challenging the status quo by telling children that it is wrong. It is giving children the knowledge and understanding to have more choice and power. The power to make up their own mind and then do something about it.

I am not in favour of politicising education. The creeping of government into education since Callaghan’s ‘secret garden’ speech of 1976 has caused more problems than it has solved. The solution to political interference is not politicising the curriculum. The liberal-humanist tradition favours the teaching of knowledge in a critical manner and in a way which enables children to grow up to be politically engaged.

We must be careful when considering Paolo Freire’s view of teaching as a political act. What exactly do we mean by political act? We cannot use teaching to try and replicate our views and opinions, nor the views of the government of the day or any other part of the establishment. This doesn’t mean avoiding controversial or political issues though. Quite the opposite. It means that we have to teach controversial and political issues better. We need to teach children in a way that explicitly recognises where knowledge comes from, how it is contested and the way knowledge is used to form opinions and underpin debate. Then we give children the tools to construct and challenge their own world view, rather than have them inherit ours.

Challenging ignorance so that children can themselves grow up to challenge the world (if they choose to). That is not only a political act free of controversy, but a matter of social justice and a moral imperative.

In the next post, I look at the related issue of cultural literacy. Then in the third and final post, I reflect on the actual process of learning and how we make sure that, having provided a tempting oasis of powerful knowledge, we then make sure the horses drink.

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