Editor’s Column: Ignorance is Bliss?

Sumner Ellsworth

Something that I have encountered more than a few times these past few weeks is a lack of respect for our fellow human beings, as well as perspectives and cultural norms different from our own. It’s in the little things that people say and do, or don’t do and for the most part we’re used to it. On the whole, we don’t hold the door open for other people, and I’m not talking chivalry here, just basic human decency; we don’t smile at people as we pass, or even acknowledge their presence; and we’re downright rude when it comes to cell phones, whether it be obnoxious ringers or chatting on the phone while walking with someone else.

But much as I may dislike all of these things, I’m used to them. What I’m not accustomed to is the blatant disrespect that I’ve seen in people lately regarding social standards that are different from their own. What really drove this home for me was an incident in a class discussion earlier this week. We were talking about William Mulholland, an engineer in California at the beginning of the twentieth century. The man accomplished amazing things, and any number of civic improvements were due almost solely to him, most notably the fact that Los Angeles has a water source, which allowed them to expand to more than a small hamlet of farmers. Unfortunately, the collapse of his St. Francis dam was also one of the greatest tragedies of the time, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of people. In response to the fact that his formal education had not extended past elementary school, a girl made a comment along the lines of, “Well, is it really surprising that his dam broke if he only had an elementary school education?”

I was appalled. The sheer ignorance in that statement floored me, and it wasn’t just ignorance, it was deliberate ignorance. No more than ten minutes before she had heard about the innovative and revolutionary aqueduct that Mulholland constructed that continues to operate today, supplying water to the otherwise desolate LA. Sure, this man didn’t have an advanced formal education, but how many did in those days? Certainly it was less common amongst the lower, middle and immigrant classes, which was where he came from, but that doesn’t preclude him from accomplishment or intelligence.

America is and has since its inception been the land of dreams, of roads paved in gold for anyone willing to work for them, and this was never more true than in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Formal education isn’t the same thing as intelligence or even informal education. There is really no limit to what a person can learn if they are motivated to do so. Social status, advantage, availability of good schools, or just schools, a person needs none of these things if they are motivated enough, driven enough, to push themselves beyond their means.

So Mulholland didn’t have a formal education, there are many very accomplished people who had very little or no formal education, people no one could argue with being very intelligent and successful. Andrew Carnegie, the steel magnate, was a self-made man in all senses of the word. Most of his schooling did not take place in a schoolroom. Abraham Lincoln, the sisteenth President of the United States, had 18 months of schooling, the rest of his considerable intelligence came from his own diligence, reading, as we’ve all heard, by fire light in his log cabin. If we were to go solely by time spent in a classroom, President Lincoln would have to be said to be even less intelligent than Mulholland. Would any among us say that Lincoln was ignorant, or even stupid?

What is it about human nature that makes us judge so quickly those who live differently than us? Why is it that we impose the standards of our society and culture on others without thought? The flaw here is thinking that we always know best, and anyone who thinks or does things differently from us is in the wrong, stupid, or backwards. Throughout history every society has looked at its neighbors with derision and scorn. But the moral or intellectual high ground is very hard to hold on to when looking down your nose at someone. Maybe, just maybe, we ought to keep an open mind, think before we speak, and consider where a person is coming from before passing judgment. If we need to pass judgment at all, maybe instead of condemning them we could respect our differences, and our neighbors.