The more we think we know, the deeper our ignorance. An ignorant person is someone who mistakes his or her habitual views for reality and reacts defensively to new perspectives and ideas. Ignorance partakes of that proverbial contempt – for others, for oneself – bred by a long and uncurious familiarity. I am ignorant when I think this hillside full of rock oaks and mountain laurel has little more to teach me. I only have to go two steps off the trail to remind myself of the limits of my usual perspective.

Intellectuals are among the most ignorant of people, because we tend to have the most highly developed and strenuously defended views. And needless to say, such ignorance becomes deadly when it shapes corporate decision-making and government policy.

Knowing that we know nothing, on the other hand, is the beginning of true awareness. That’s why most dogs seem wiser than their masters, and so many truths can be found among the songs and sayings of the so-called common people.

In local parlance, here in central Pennsylvania, ignorant means uncouth, rude, offensive. That’s not entirely separate from the kind of ignorance I’m talking about here, as the following example of usage shows.

Some time back in the mid 80s my brother was dating a woman from South Africa of multiracial (“colored”) ethnicity. When he took her to meet a few of his friends in Altoona, they were curious about her background, never having heard much about South Africa. My brother explained a little bit about the apartheid system, and one of the women reacted with great indignation: “That’s so ignorant!

Now, I suppose that better-educated folks would say that anyone back in the 80s who didn’t already know about apartheid must have been deeply ignorant. But in fact, the woman in question was, my brother said, very curious and open-minded – quite opposite from the learned architects of – and public apologists for – the apartheid system.

You might call such a woman backward, but again you’d be at variance with local usage. Around here, backward means shy – and it isn’t such a bad thing to be. It’s far better than having a swelled head.

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