Thursday, April 28, 2011


NOTE: From time to time, I will post a bit from my FDENG 101 class here. Is for fun.

A good part of our discussion this week has focused on two things:

1) How do we express our ignorance without saying we’re stupid?
2) How do we counteract our own ignorance?

First, ignorance without stupidity.

These are not synonyms.
  • Ignorance, per the American Heritage Dictionary, is defined as “The condition of being ignorant; lack of knowledge.”
  • Stupidity, per the same dictionary, is defined as “The quality of fact of being stupid, or a stupid act, remark, or idea.”
So we now turn to the root words:
  • Ignorant: Without education or knowledge; exhibiting lack of education or knowledge; unaware or uninformed.
  • Stupid: Slow to apprehend, dull, obtuse; showing a lack of sense or intelligence.
To me, this implies that when we speak of ignorance, we speak of a lack of education – whether through lost or missed opportunity, laziness, distraction, or what have you. Stupidity, conversely, is a lack of the mental or spiritual means or drive to obtain knowledge. We may be at the same time both ignorant and stupid – we can lack knowledge, of, say, cosmology – the study of the universe – while at the same time lacking the mental or spiritual faculties necessary to attain that knowledge and erase our ignorance.

In contrast, we may be ignorant of cosmology but at the same time not stupid – we have at our fingertips the tools, the guidelines, the raw data, the imagination necessary to convert our ignorance into knowing.

I speak of cosmology because of this wonderful example of an ignorant, but not stupid, man turning his ignorance into a great pool of knowledge:

When the Mount Wilson Observatory was under construction at the turn of the 20th century in the hills above Los Angeles, a man by the name of Milton Humason worked there as a mule skinner, tending some of the many mules used to haul construction equipment and supplies up the mountain to where the observatory was being built.

After the observatory was finished in 1917, he got a job there as a janitor, partly to impress his father-in-law, who looked down on a potential son-in-law who had no formal education past the age of 14 and worked as a ranch hand.

Shortly thereafter, however, he changed jobs at the observatory and became a “night assistant,” or an astronomer’s helper. His patience, skill, and diligence, per Brian Vertrudo, writing for the Christian Science Monitor, brought him to the attention of George Hale, head of the observatory. Recognizing in Humason only a lack of knowledge, evidenced by his stunted education – but not stupidiy – evidenced by his dedication to his new duties – Hale appointed Humason to the scientific staff of the observatory in 1919.

Humason went on, with fellow astronomer Edwin Hubble, to describe the “red-shift” of stars and galaxies, a key component to the Big Bang theory.

There’s a bit more about Milton Humason here, from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos episode “Edge of Forever”:

I recommend you watch the full episode here, but especially the final few minutes, where Sagan, years after the show first aired in the early 1980s, updates the science he spoke of in the show. Here we see a man confessing his past ignorance without expressing a single iota of stupidity.

That brings us to another of mankind’s vices, from stupidity to pride. Do we, then, as educated, non-ignorant people, have the right to brag about our lack of ignorance? Not really. I know some very intelligent people, whose intelligence ranges from knowing how to interact with people to the intricacies of nuclear criticality safety. They have in common something Eliot Butler points out in his essay “Everybody Is Ignorant, Only On Different Subjects”:
I am sorry to say that one cannot always detect whether someone recently met has graduated from a university. But one can soon tell if one is speaking with an educated person. Mark Van Doren points out correctly that nobody who is will ever admit to being educated, but only that he or she is so conscious of many areas of gross ignorance. Will Rogers saw it clearly: “Everybody is ignorant,” he said, “only on different subjects.”
Our Father in Heaven wants us to attain knowledge and imagination and to help those around us. Elder David A. Bednar said in a Sept. 11, 2001, devotional BYU-Idaho:
Each of us must also appreciate the roles of faithfulness and diligence and obedience in the Lord’s pattern for receiving help from heaven. Please turn with me again to 2 Nephi 28:30. “For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have.
He goes on to say:
[A]s we mature spiritually, we begin to develop a sound judgment, a refined and educated conscience, and a heart and mind filled with wisdom. It is not just that we have grown older, nor have we simply become smarter and had more experiences on which to draw, as important as those experiences are. Rather, the Holy Ghost has over time been expanding our intellect, forming our feelings, sharpening and elevating our perspective, such that we increasingly think and feel and act as the Lord would under similar circumstances.
Here we see the pattern for counteracting our own ignorance: Humility. We humbly seek knowledge and inspiration and sparks of imagination from our studies, from the books we read, the programs we watch, the thoughts we have individually and as we discuss things with others. Wee see the fruition of what Butler writes of:
[O]ne quickly detects when one speaks with an educated person. Matters learned last evening, and being pondered and developed, books recently read, an essay just encountered, an argument still going on, a book just purchase to be read tonight as soon as another is finished -- one hears of such from an educated person.

Over several years I have spoken with many graduating seniors in one program here: with several there was the pain of learning that not one book had been read since they entered the university except the required books. By others a few had been read. But the educated men and women in the program all had books just finished, others being read, and a growing list of books that they could hardly wait to get into.
Further, author CS Lewis had this to say about humility when he offered his sermon “Learning in War-Time,” in 1939:
As the author of the Theologia Germanicai says, we may come to love knowledge -- our knowing -- more than the thing known: to delight not in the exercise of our talents but in the fact that they are ours, or even in the reputation they bring us. Every success in the scholar's life increases this danger. If it becomes irresistible, he must give up his scholarly work. The time for plucking out the right eye has arrived.
Acknowledging our ignorance is the first step in erasing it. And if we pursue that erasure with humility – expressing thanks to those who have gone on before us, as Albert Einstein says:
Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations. All this is put in your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it on to your children.
we will attain what President Gordon B. Hinckley said:
Anyone who imagines that bliss is normal is going to waste a lot of time running abound shouting that he's been robbed. The fact is that most putts don't drop, most beef is tough, most children grow up to be just people, most successful marriages required a high degree of mutual toleration, most jobs are more often dull than otherwise. Life is like an old time rail journey . . . delays, sidetracks, smoke, dust, cinders and jolts, interspersed only occasionally by beautiful vistas and thrilling bursts of speed. The trick is to thank the Lord for letting you have the ride.

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