President Barack Obama defended Enlightenment values recently in a commencement address at Rutgers University. Obama described the American founders as Enlightenment thinkers who opposed “superstition and sectarianism.” He concluded, “In politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue.”
This caused a minor flurry of commentary. Many took this to be an attack on Donald Trump, which it probably was. Trump tweeted that it was Obama who was ignorant. And so it goes in an era when even university commencements are politicized.
But universities are not politically neutral. They are bastions of enlightenment. They proclaim enlightenment values in their Latin mottos. The Rutgers motto says, “Sun of righteousness shine upon the West.” Fresno State’s motto says, “Receive the light and give it forth.” The University of California’s motto is “Let there be light.”
The enlightenment ideal is politically progressive. Defenders of the enlightenment believe that knowledge makes the world better. And they know that knowledge rests upon freedom of thought.
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The great Enlightenment thinkers were liberals in the broad historical sense of the term. They advocated liberty, equality and justice – and in some cases, political revolution.
Enlightenment thinkers believed that tyranny and injustice could be overcome when the light of reason is allowed to shine. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppression will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.”
The German philosopher Immanuel Kant used a Latin phrase as the motto of enlightenment: sapere aude. This is a command: “dare to know!” Enlightenment rests upon a set of such imperatives. Speak truth to power. Be audacious in pursuit of wisdom. Follow the light, wherever it leads.
Some critics claim that this is a bunch of Eurocentric nonsense. They reject Enlightenment values as the oppressive ideology of colonizers and slaveholders. It is true that the heroes of the Enlightenment were white European men. They were wrong about a lot of things, including slavery.
We all have blind spots. But enlightenment provides a solution. Enlightenment requires self-criticism. We cure our moral blindness through free inquiry and rational argument.
Other critics reject reason as a solution to the human problem. Some believe that faith and feeling are more important than argument and inquiry. Others fear that liberal education is irreligious indoctrination. Some even think that science is an ideological temptation.
But blind faith is willful ignorance. Good ideas do not need protection from criticism. Rational critique strengthens good ideas and helps us avoid bad ones.
Martin Luther King once said, “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” Immoral people often plead ignorance, when they are caught doing something wrong. Others turn a blind eye to injustice.
Voluntary ignorance is negligent and recklessly indifferent. Knowledge generates responsibility. Mature people accept the obligations that knowledge creates. Moral people also shine a light on their failures. They admit their mistakes and work to correct them.
Some people are proud of their prejudices. Others wear bigotry as a badge of honor. The ignoramus relishes his own stupidity.
Such bovine complacency is the opposite of enlightenment. Conformity and obedience are easy. But cud-chewing contentment is beneath the dignity of human being. And docile herds are susceptible to the whims of the demagogues. Fanatics manipulate superstition, while tyrants prey upon a compliant populace.
Enlightenment is not easy. It is hard to think for yourself. Some claim that ignorance is bliss. But ignorance is not bliss – it is merely the path of least resistance.
To claim that ignorance is bliss is to deny our innate inquisitiveness. We are born ignorant. But we have a thirst for knowledge.
Education feeds off of curiosity. It questions everything and stimulates further inquiry. A good education arouses our mental energies. A great education leaves us with burning questions.
Laziness, cowardice and self-interest occasionally get in the way. It is easy to rest comfortably in our misconceptions. No one is completely wise or perfectly moral. Dark spots of ignorance remain within each of us. But the solution is obvious: more enlightenment and less stupidity.
Our schools and universities are a product of the Enlightenment, as is our republic. Democracies flourish under conditions of enlightenment. They falter when ignorance grows. They thrive when citizens dare to be wise.