One motto of George Orwell’s dystopian society was, “ignorance is strength.” But philosophers like Plato maintain that ignorance is the root of evil.
If those sentences make sense, thank your history, philosophy, and literature teachers. Study in the humanities prevents ignorance and safeguards our democratic heritage.
The iceberg of ignorance can sink the ship of state. Citizens and politicians must understand the history of our political system and the philosophy behind it. We need broad education in literature, philosophy and art.
Consider President Donald Trump’s claim that the press is the “enemy of the people.” That phrase comes from a play by Henrik Ibsen, where it is used ironically. The character who is declared an enemy of the people is the hero who is wrongly accused. The play calls for a press that is free and committed to the truth.
Trump seems unaware that his accusation is an ironic compliment. Nor does he seem to understand that freedom of the press is a fundamental constitutional principle. But he is not alone in his ignorance.
A 2014 survey from the First Amendment Center found that 29 percent of Americans cannot name any of the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment. Only 14 percent of Americans correctly identify freedom of the press as one of those rights. A related survey by the Annenberg Center indicated that only one-third of Americans could name all three branches of government. One-third of Americans could not name a single branch.
Meanwhile the White House may cut funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities. But today, more than ever, we need to study Plato, Orwell, Ibsen and U.S. history.
View of Supreme Court justice
This point was made clear at a civic education summit I attended last week in Sacramento. The keynote lecture by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy demonstrated the importance of a broad liberal arts education.
Kennedy connected the U.S. Constitution to the philosophical heritage that undergirds Western civilization. He explained that the ancient Greeks understood that democracy is dangerous when citizens lack virtue and education.
Kennedy indicted the uncouth coarseness of contemporary culture. He warned that our public discourse has become intemperate, irrational, divisive and unprincipled. He reminded us that the Greeks addressed similar problems.
Kennedy concluded by asking us to consider whether our democracy is enviable, admirable and inspiring. He implied that we have an obligation to history and the world to establish a model of a vibrant democracy. If the U.S. cannot get democracy right, there is little hope for democracy on earth.
The key to a stable democracy is education. No one is born understanding the Constitution or the expectations of citizenship. Nor are people born temperate or wise. We learn these things from parents, educators, and role models. We learn about politics, morality and life by reading widely in the long conversation that is our literary, philosophical and political heritage.
One important theme in this heritage is the need for what Kennedy called “ordered liberty.” We benefit from the rule of law and from a system of checks and balances. Ignorant and licentious people don’t like this. They want instant gratification. They don’t understand the need for deliberation and regulation. They think the world should be subject to their whims.
But living well requires deferred gratification, self-control, patience and civility. Good things rarely occur quickly. This is true in politics and in life. The journey toward justice, virtue and wisdom is a lifelong endeavor. It takes hard work, honesty and self-knowledge.
Enemy is ignorance
The Western philosophical tradition begins with the fundamental commandment to “know thyself.” This command asks us to admit our ignorance. Indeed, ignorance is the real enemy of the people.
Socrates famously claimed that the only thing he was certain of was that he knew he lacked knowledge. First we must admit what we do not know. Then we can seek the truth, avoiding what Ibsen called the “quagmire of falsehood and deceit.”
In the climax of Ibsen’s play, the hero declares, “the sources of our moral life are poisoned and the whole fabric of our civic community is founded on the pestiferous soil of falsehood.” The cure for pestilent falsehood is relentless pursuit of the truth. The antidote for the poison of ignorance is education.
Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala