But if freedom has since lost its meaning, as I claim, why is there so little outcry among Americans who still pay lip service to the ideal of liberty? It is tempting for me to say that this is because prosperity, or "way of life," feels so much like our notion of genuine freedom that we can't make a distinction. Certainly that would be a form of ignorance indeed. But the citizens of George Washington's era also enjoyed relative prosperity, yet they rose up against their government. What made the difference?
Our word "liberty" comes from the Latin word liber. When used as an adjective, liber means "the quality of being free" or "lacking restrictions." When used as a noun, liber means "book."
In order to be Liber, a person must be aware. A man who does not examine premises, test his faith, or think his own thoughts cannot expect to become master of himself or of his destiny. Such people would be perfectly satisfied with no real responsibilities and with infantile dependency upon artificial social systems. On the other hand, free men and women are prepared for liberty through literacy and education. A true liberal education is designed to prepare its students for the hard responsibilities of freedom. To be truly free, we must become generalists: "A classical definition of a liberal education is that you know everything about something, and something about everything." 1
A friend of mine recently brought to my attention an article published by the ACM entitled The Five Orders of Ignorance.2 In this article, Phillip Armour lays out the orders of ignorance as follows:
0th Order Ignorance (0OI)— Lack of Ignorance. I have 0OI when I know something and can demonstrate my lack of ignorance in some tangible form.
1st Order Ignorance (1OI)— Lack of Knowledge. I have 1OI when I don’t know something and can readily identify that fact. 1OI is basic ignorance.
2nd Order Ignorance (2OI)— Lack of Awareness. I have 2OI when I don’t know that I don’t know something. That is to say, not only am I ignorant of something (for instance I have 1OI), I am unaware of this fact.
3rd Order Ignorance (3OI)— Lack of Process. I have 3OI when I don’t know a suitably efficient way to find out I don’t know that I don’t know something. This is lack of process, and it presents me with a major problem: If I have 3OI, I don’t know of a way to find out there are things I don’t know that I don’t know.
4th Order Ignorance (4OI)— Meta Ignorance. I have 4OI when I don’t know about the Five Orders of Ignorance.
What should become the central pursuit of a society that is interested in the principle of liberty, considering that liberty can only be secured in an atmosphere of general awareness? Who among us, in addition to heeding our life's calling, should not be engaged in the career of liberty? To be free, we must be educated.
"Ah!" Some might say, "But we already put such a tremendous emphasis on education in America! We understand this requirement for freedom!"
Eric Hoffer wrote that "it stands to reason that the central pursuit of a society attracts and swallows individuals who by nature are meant for other careers."3 He also claimed that "the best of our literature, painting, sculpture, music, etc. has not come from our schools."4
So what is the central pursuit of our society, if it isn't liberty or even individual fulfillment? It is the quest for efficiency and innovation; to compete with foreign powers in a global marketplace. Instead of providing us with the liberal education that will prepare us as free men and women, our schools are designed to provide us with the security of good jobs -- to maintain America as the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world.
In short, we are a massively illiterate people. Yes, we can read the words and (arguably) follow the instructions, but as individuals we no longer own much knowledge or remember first principles. We have traded knowledge for minutia and principles for privileges.
It all comes down to leisure. When I say "leisure," I do not mean that form of largely useless entertainment that we have come to associate with leisure in modern times. In fact, the contemporary idea of leisure is partly to blame:
A great media metaphor shift has taken place in America, with the result that the content of much of our public discourse has become dangerous nonsense... Under the governance of the printing press, discourse in America was different from what it is now -- generally coherent, serious and rational... under the governance of television, it has become shriveled and absurd. 5The truth is that a rational sort of leisure is actually the solution to the problem.
For instance, Hobbes said that leisure is the Mother of Philosophy.
Eric Hoffer taught that leisure is required for a person to grow and mature; time for leisure enables one to leave the juvenile madhouse of constant activity and continual change (this comes from a man who spent many of his leisure hours reading Montaigne and Dostoevsky among many, many others).6
The Mormon religious Utopian and savant, Hugh Nibley, derided the American "work ethic" as pretentious, greedy, and distracting: "Those very popular how-to-get-rich books, which are the guides to the perplexed of the present generation, say we should keep our minds fixed at all times on just one objective; the person who lets his thoughts wander away from anything but business even for a moment does not deserve the wealth he seeks. Such is the high ethic of the youth today. And such an ethic places us not on the level of the beast but below it." 7
The British engineer, C.H. Douglas, ruminated about the 15th century laborer who was "able to maintain himself in a standard of living considerably higher, relative to his generation, than that of the present time."8 It turns out that Christopher Columbus' contemporaries somehow recorded far less time working in the fields providing for themselves than we, in our mechanized and automated age, spend in the office working for someone else.
In contemplating the eight pathologies of character that mass-schooled students consistently demonstrated during his thirty year tenure as a public School Teacher, John Taylor Gatto attributed it to either schools or television. "It's a simple matter of arithmetic, " he wrote, "Between schooling and television, all the time the children have is eaten up."9 The leisure hours of our youth are filled up with equal portions of Global Economy and entertainment.
Gatto traced the blight of modern public schooling to an infancy where fathers had been removed from their homes by a new mass-production industry, from the resulting broken families and moral vagaries that would be put right by a reinvented American State destined to become, like James I, Father of the People; and from roots in the Prussian school system originally designed to churn out professional soldiery that would reign on the battlefields of the Napoleonic wars.
If mass urbanization and industrialization constitute the first great American Tragedy, then the resulting idea of public schooling is a close second. In a system designed to produce efficient workers for a global mass-market economy, we lost the process we needed to become prepared for the unique and individual responsibilities of liberty. Those lessons require moral, character, and mental education that our schools, and now our communities, are no longer equipped to give us. We live, for the most part, with fourth order ignorance.
"Character," Helen Keller once told us, "is not developed in ease and quiet." As of January 28, 2009, and with the sum of $819 billion imaginary dollars, the United States Government (We the People), made an attempt to restore ease and quiet and to defer the development of national character for another day and for another generation. For the time being (it is widely hoped), instead of going home to our families and communities, we will return to our jobs and to our economy and to our silly schools.
Because in America, ignorance truly is bliss.
1. Donald Knuth: A Life's Work Interrupted (CACM interview with Donald Knuth by Edward Feigenbaum), Communications of the ACM, Volume 51, Number 8, p35
2. The Five Orders of Ignorance, by Phillip G. Armour, Communications of the ACM, Volume 43, Number 10, p19.
3. The Temper of Our Time, p.98
4. Ibid. p.38
5. Amusing Ourselves to Death (20th Anniversary Edition, 2006), by Neil Postman, p.16
6. The Temper of Our Time, ch. 2
7. "Work We Must, But the Lunch is Free", Approaching Zion, 1989, by Hugh Nibley, p. 236
8. Quoted in "I Fear No Peevish Master," by Anthony Cooney; Beyond Capitalism and Socialism, 2008, p.17
9. Dumbing us Down, 2nd edition, 2005, byt John Taylor Gatto. p.28