The New Ignorance Far Worse than the Old


“Education,” wrote Malcolm Muggeridge fifty years ago, “the great fraud and mumbo-jumbo of the age,” had not brought to the mass of men the best that has been done and thought and said, but rather spread ignorance and folly across the land. Muggeridge understood, though he did not feel he needed to say so explicitly, that the modern ignorance is a new kind of thing, not like the ignorance of old. We Catholics who wish to bring the good news of Christ to the world must now reckon with the malady, because it will require of us something other than what was required of the old missionaries when they went among a heathen people, to show them that the best of what they already believed was but an adumbration of the truth, whole and living.

The old ignorance is easy to describe. All it meant was that people did not know how to read, or had not had a chance to study arts and letters and the sciences, or were never introduced to the gospel. Among peoples already Christian it had more to do with what class you were born to than how intelligent you were. So an Italian mason would know how to dress a block of marble for a rounded pillar, so that it would sit securely in place, tapering it towards the top, too, lest it look as if it were beetling above you and getting ready to fall upon your head. The miller knew how to rig the carpentry so that he could engage and disengage the water wheel with ease. The painter knew how to build scaffolding, and where to get the earths, greens, shellfish, bones, berries, and whatnot to create his pigments. You could not get through an ordinary day without putting into act a wide variety of skills, and practical knowledge of the world around you, and this was true of both sexes, and even of children. But they might not know who Cicero was, or how to read The Divine Comedy, or, unless they were sailors, what route you would take on the sea to get to Ireland, or what a logarithm is, and so forth.

I could now say that the new ignorance is just the old ignorance, without those skills and that practical knowledge. The new ignorant are vague about what a mill is, nor do they know who Cicero was, even though they have attended school, that efficient emptier of brains, for twelve to sixteen years. That would be bad enough, but it would still not be exactly correct.

Lately I followed a lead to an article written by our good friend Joseph Pearce, on the fact that students coming to college and students leaving college do not really know much at all about the history, theology, philosophy, art, and poetry of the Christian heritage. He is quite right about that, and I’ve long known about it. I’m sure he is aware of an even deeper ignorance, though—the ignorance you have to be educated into; the ignorance on gaudy display in the comments below his article.

For examples:

Constantine decreed that the Church had to believe in the Trinity.
Christians adopted a pagan festival to celebrate Easter and Christmas.
Christians were pacifists who sapped the strength of the Roman Empire (hat tip to you, Edward Gibbon, sour skeptic and despiser of the Church).
Christians massacred people who did not convert to their religion.
Christians burned down the library at Alexandria.
Catholics persecuted the “heretic” Copernicus.
Jesus preached socialism and the redistribution of income.
Christians despised pagan philosophy.
Christians are responsible for the rejection of centuries of scientific achievement.
Christians caused the fall of the Roman Empire.
Catholics burned a million people at the stake for being “witches.”
If it weren’t for Christians, we might have been driving around in automobiles fifteen centuries ago.

Those are just from the one article. I can supply more. The Founding Fathers were mostly deists. Enlightenment skeptics were primarily responsible for abolishing slavery. Nothing important culturally happened between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance. The American Indians were largely peace-loving until Europeans arrived. Women in the Middle Ages were no better than chattel. Michelangelo and Shakespeare were homosexuals. Scholars in the Middle Ages fought over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. People believed the world was flat until Renaissance scientists (or Columbus) proved otherwise. The American economy flourished because of the slave trade. People used to practice abortion every bit as commonly as now.

“Wise women” used to give herbal remedies to people, and that is why they were accused of witchcraft. The drafters of the American constitution determined that a black man was worth only three-fifths of a white man. Women were not allowed to own property before (pick your year). The Catholic Church in particular, and Christians in general, have always been afraid of sex and the human body. Islam was peaceful enough until the Crusades. Pope Pius XII was Hitler’s man.

Catholics believe, and have always believed, that all Protestants are surely going to hell, and vice-versa, and both Catholics and Protestants believe, and have always believed, that every person not baptized with water by a priest or minister is going to join them there. Religion is just a means of “controlling” people. Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. Saint Paul invented the Church. Jesus was just an ordinary teacher, like the Buddha. The gospels were written down a hundred years after the facts. The first Christians suppressed the “real” gospels.

The human race was matriarchal until (pick your event: the ancient agricultural revolution will do). There was no division of labor between men and women until (pick your event: the industrial revolution will do). Very few people in the United States knew how to read anything much until the advent of compulsory schooling. The account of creation in Genesis is just like every other account of creation from the ancient world.

And on it goes. I will soon be meeting my college freshmen for the first time, in our program in the development of western civilization, and I know that I will have to un-teach them a great deal of nonsense that they have been taught. Much of it is sheer blinkered stupidity, such as that you must never use the personal pronoun “I” in an essay, or that you may not begin a sentence with “because,” or that you should never use the passive voice—defined as using any form of the verb “to be.” But much of it is this new kind of ignorance, the shallow bigotry of people who have been malformed in their schooling and in their reading of bad books or sloppy journalism, over the course of many years, so that they “know” all kinds of things that are not true, and “know” them as ingrained prejudices. I have seen it many times before: we will spend a whole semester teaching them about the glorious art and literature of the Middle Ages, introducing them to Dante and Giotto and Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure, and still some of them will repeat that canard about darkness covering the world in gloom for ten centuries, until Petrarch or somebody was born.

The situation would be bad enough if we encountered it only in the graduates of high school and of the “lesser” colleges and universities, but not from places like Princeton and Harvard and Yale. Alas, that is not the case at all. The graduates of still-Catholic and still-Christian colleges are more likely than are their counterparts from the Poison Ivies to know some things about the western heritage. You cannot graduate from my school, Providence College, without at least brushing up against Homer, Virgil, Marcus Aurelius, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard, inter alia. But it is highly unlikely that a graduate of Brown University, that overpriced bohemian stew pot across the city from us in Providence, will have read a single play by Shakespeare for his or her classes, let alone anything of Virgil or the Scriptures.

We will also encounter it among the self-styled prophets of our time: the journalists, and journalistic writers of memoirs and cultural analyses. Mr. Ta-Nehisi Coates, new darling of the left and a recipient of one of the MacArthur “genius” awards, admitted recently without embarrassment or apology that he had never heard of Saint Augustine; which is rather like a prize-winning author from England having never heard of Charlemagne. Since Coates writes about racial issues, his ignorance of the great intellect from North Africa was all the more stunning. And yet he can speak endlessly about racism and the Christian faith. Such a thing is common among journalists and the writers of popular journalistic books, and it comes from all races, all political persuasions, and both sexes.

That is what we have to deal with now. In The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis said that the task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. That is still true, except that the desert-dwellers we meet suffer one jungle-mirage after another, a veritable fantasyland rain forest of monstrous untruths and massive foolishness. We will have to help them clear their heads of the hallucinogens before we can fill those heads with truth and beauty.

Editor’s note: The image above depicts Bugs Bunny’s nephew Clyde in the final scene from the Looney Toons cartoon Yankee Doodle Bugs (1954).

Anthony Esolen


Professor Esolen teaches Renaissance English Literature and the Development of Western Civilization at Providence College. He is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); and Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015).