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Demise of Ignorance

The records will show that ignorance has been the norm during the vast majority of human history on this planet.

Ignorance is not intended as a derogatory term. It is simply the absence of knowledge of or information related to a specific event or field of inquiry. As Mark Twain said, "We are all ignorant, just about different things."

There are three basic types of ignorance: factual – the absence of knowledge about some fact, object – unacquaintance with some object, and technical – the lack of understanding of how to do something.

Humans in the ages known as prehistoric were ignorant of most of all three categories. However, they were knowledgeable about the facts, objects, and skills necessary to sustain life. Important information was shared through oral, mythological, and archeological traditions.

Elders in a community probably took great pride in passing what they had learned to the young or ignorant. There was no shame in saying, "I don't know, please tell or show me." Knowledge earned respect and position within the tribe or clan.

With the dawn of the written word, the acceptable norm changed somewhere around the 4th millennium BCE. The first written communication dates back to 3500 B.C. For many years, only a tiny amount of people learned to read and write. A new source of authority had arrived, and with it a new class, the literate. Those who knew how to read held public performances to display their skill.

Books did not appear until 23 B.C. in Rome, the Middle East, and Asia. The lack of something to write on delayed the dissemination of the written word. The Romans had papyrus, but it rotted quickly.

Thanks to papyrus, the literacy rate was around 15% to 25% during the late Roman Empire. Unfortunately, very few documents survived, and the literacy rate in the Dark Ages dropped to new lows of 4% to 6%, existing mainly among the clergy and civil servants. Even many kings were illiterate.

Paper appeared in Spain and had spread around Europe by the end of the 12th century. Paper changed everything because it was cheap and durable. For generations, only the privileged classes could afford books until the invention of the printing press in the 15th century.

In the 14th century, only about 5% of the population could read or write. It was infrequent for a peasant to be literate. There were some laws enacted to ban serfs from being educated. Again, there would be nothing shameful about saying, "I don't know. Please read to me."

The opportunity to become literate has often been denied to all but the privileged classes. It is a source of power to have knowledge or ability that the masses do not.

It may be surprising to note that the literacy rate in the American colonies was higher than in Europe, partially due to the emphasis placed on reading by the religious sects. The founding fathers of our democracy felt that citizen literacy would be essential protection against tyranny.

The Industrial Revolution brought more changes to the advancement of literacy. Mass production of paper significantly reduced the cost of books, and literacy became a primary goal in U.S. public education.

In developed countries across the globe, the literacy rate continued to rise each century.

Worldwide, only 12% of the people in the world could read and write in 1820. By 2016, only 14% of the world population remained illiterate. Literacy continued to be a coveted symbol of achievement; however, it was acknowledged that many people functioned quite well in society with limited reading and writing abilities. It was still acceptable not to know everything.

I grew up in mid-twentieth-century America with only a set of encyclopedias and a public library to augment what I learned in public school. Somehow I managed to complete a college education and succeed in a professional career before smartphones and the worldwide web. I was never ashamed to admit not knowing something on the spot. "I will find out," was my usual promise.

Technological innovations began to take off in the latter half of the twentieth century and continue exponentially in the twenty-first century. These devices and methods have changed how we live, work, communicate, and amuse ourselves.

I have gladly adapted to all of these miracles of invention and do not wish to return to days of yore. The one phenomenon that amuses me and causes me to wonder is the demise of socially acceptable ignorance.

Let's say you are engaged in a benign conversation with coworkers, neighbors, or friends, and someone refers to a person, a location, or a news item with which you are unfamiliar. How can you respond?

I dare you to say, "I don't know that person. I have never been there. I didn't hear that." Someone in your group will probably ask you, "Don't you have a phone?"

We have become accustomed to holding the knowledge of the world in our palm, only a few keystrokes away. It is a beautiful thing to satisfy curiosity in a split second. In no way am I disparaging this marvel. I certainly dream of how different my younger life would have been with these tools.

I suggest that what we gain so quickly is often a very cursory understanding. We may, of course, dig deeper if we are willing to spend the time to learn more than the answer to a trivia question.

I further suggest that something is often lost with something gained. It is no longer socially acceptable to admit ignorance. Our feeling of success with a quick answer gives us a false perception of being finished. If we cannot accept there is always more to learn, we may have come to the end of our human journey.

Being alive in the fourth quarter of life, I am grateful for opportunities to learn more. I am not ashamed to say, "I don't know. Not only will I find out the answer to your question, but I will also probably go down several rabbit trails learning more than you had in mind."

As Robert Theobald noted, "When information doubles, knowledge halves and wisdom quarters."

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