What does it mean to be an educated person? I posted an introductory essay on this topic in June, 2022. I promised to continue this theme, but more pressing issues distracted me. I concluded that…
Acquiring an education is a self-conscious process of learning the inner workings and interrelationships of the major sectors of the society within which we live—economy, politics, art, literature, law, science, technology, ethics, and religion.
I want to continue exploring the idea of education, focusing today on one mark of an educated person, intellectual responsibility.
Learning and Ignorance
I have been an educator for half of my life and most of the other half I was studying to become one. I have read more books than I can count; and I have written a few. I still feel ignorant! Hence, in this essay I want to address the place of ignorance in intellectual life.
I have found it a rule that the more we learn the more we become aware of our ignorance. The deeper we probe a topic the more we realize its connections with other areas of knowledge. And those areas are connected to still others. At some point it dawns on us that the web of mutually conditioning connections spreads out infinitely in all directions. Not only must we admit that we do not know how far our ignorance extends, we must also acknowledge that things we do not know could affect the meaning of the things we believe. That is to say, becoming aware of the extent of our ignorance casts doubt on what seemed certain.
Let me differentiate what I am saying from thoroughgoing skepticism—the thesis that we know nothing at all. Suppose I gain by close inspection some empirical knowledge of a certain mountain peak. I learn about its resident animals, plants, and many of its physical features. These facts will not change no matter how much I learn later about the rest of the mountain and its setting in its mountain range. These facts would remain the same even if we mapped its entire setting on earth, in the history of geology and biology, in the solar system, in the galaxy, etc. But coming to know this extended web of connections would expand our understanding of the origin, history, function, and significance of this mountain peak. Gaining such information would not convince us that our previous knowledge was erroneous, but it would show its incompleteness.
I believe we could apply this same procedure to almost any assertion of fact or truth whether philosophical, theological, historical, or scientific: that God exists, murder is immoral, the American Civil War ended in 1865, or that knowledge can best be defined as true, justified belief. If a belief is true, no new information can make it false. But new information can deepen our understanding or expand the meaning of a belief.
What does this exercise have to do with being an educated person? An intellectually responsible person knows enough about an area of study to be able to give good reasons why gaining further knowledge about that area and its connections with other areas will not falsify the knowledge they have gained so far. At the same time, however, educated people are aware of their ignorance of other related facts and truths that could deepen and expand their current understanding. Unlike the skeptic, the educated person’s awareness of their ignorance is hard won and productive of further knowledge.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from the skeptic is the dogmatist. Dogmatists identify their isolated beliefs with absolute truths, that is, truths whose meaning is fully and unambiguously present in the very words of the assertions. Dogmatists are not open to modification, deepening, and expansion of their beliefs by pursuing additional information. Like the skeptical attitude, the dogmatic mentality is not productive of further knowledge.
Neither the skeptic nor the dogmatist measures up to the ideal of intellectual responsibility. Educated people should know enough about the wider context of their beliefs to defend them against total denials but also be aware enough of their ignorance to learn from their opponents. The attitude of which I am speaking combines intellectual confidence with intellectual humility in a way productive of continued learning.
Dogmatists fear that admitting the least smidgen of incompleteness in their beliefs will plunge them into complete relativism and skepticism. Skeptics dread making commitments for fear that they will be disappointed. Both lack the Christian virtue of hope. Hope embraces unwaveringly the truth it knows, believing that it is only a taste of what is to come. Hope unites confidence and openness in a way productive of joy. Both dogmatists and skeptics are miserable.