Enlightenment Values and Education

Ignorance is Not a Virtue

Fresno Bee, May 20, 2016

  • Ignorance, enlightenment are political issues
  • American universities are committed to enlightenment values
  • Democracies flourish when citizens are enlightened

Obama at Rutgers graduation- Ignorance is not a virtuePresident Barack Obama defended Enlightenment values recently in a commencement address at Rutgers University. Obama described the American founders as Enlightenment thinkers who opposed “superstition and sectarianism.” He concluded, “In politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue.”

This caused a minor flurry of commentary. Many took this to be an attack on Donald Trump, which it probably was. Trump tweeted that it was Obama who was ignorant. And so it goes in an era when even university commencements are politicized.

But universities are not politically neutral. They are bastions of enlightenment. They proclaim enlightenment values in their Latin mottos. The Rutgers motto says, “Sun of righteousness shine upon the West.” Fresno State’s motto says, “Receive the light and give it forth.” The University of California’s motto is “Let there be light.”


The enlightenment ideal is politically progressive. Defenders of the enlightenment believe that knowledge makes the world better. And they know that knowledge rests upon freedom of thought.

The great Enlightenment thinkers were liberals in the broad historical sense of the term. They advocated liberty, equality and justice – and in some cases, political revolution.

Enlightenment thinkers believed that tyranny and injustice could be overcome when the light of reason is allowed to shine. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppression will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.”

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant used a Latin phrase as the motto of enlightenment: sapere aude. This is a command: “dare to know!” Enlightenment rests upon a set of such imperatives. Speak truth to power. Be audacious in pursuit of wisdom. Follow the light, wherever it leads.

Some critics claim that this is a bunch of Eurocentric nonsense. They reject Enlightenment values as the oppressive ideology of colonizers and slaveholders. It is true that the heroes of the Enlightenment were white European men. They were wrong about a lot of things, including slavery.

We all have blind spots. But enlightenment provides a solution. Enlightenment requires self-criticism. We cure our moral blindness through free inquiry and rational argument.

Other critics reject reason as a solution to the human problem. Some believe that faith and feeling are more important than argument and inquiry. Others fear that liberal education is irreligious indoctrination. Some even think that science is an ideological temptation.

But blind faith is willful ignorance. Good ideas do not need protection from criticism. Rational critique strengthens good ideas and helps us avoid bad ones.

Martin Luther King once said, “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” Immoral people often plead ignorance, when they are caught doing something wrong. Others turn a blind eye to injustice.

Voluntary ignorance is negligent and recklessly indifferent. Knowledge generates responsibility. Mature people accept the obligations that knowledge creates. Moral people also shine a light on their failures. They admit their mistakes and work to correct them.

Some people are proud of their prejudices. Others wear bigotry as a badge of honor. The ignoramus relishes his own stupidity.

Such bovine complacency is the opposite of enlightenment. Conformity and obedience are easy. But cud-chewing contentment is beneath the dignity of human being. And docile herds are susceptible to the whims of the demagogues. Fanatics manipulate superstition, while tyrants prey upon a compliant populace.


Enlightenment is not easy. It is hard to think for yourself. Some claim that ignorance is bliss. But ignorance is not bliss – it is merely the path of least resistance.

To claim that ignorance is bliss is to deny our innate inquisitiveness. We are born ignorant. But we have a thirst for knowledge.

Education feeds off of curiosity. It questions everything and stimulates further inquiry. A good education arouses our mental energies. A great education leaves us with burning questions.

Laziness, cowardice and self-interest occasionally get in the way. It is easy to rest comfortably in our misconceptions. No one is completely wise or perfectly moral. Dark spots of ignorance remain within each of us. But the solution is obvious: more enlightenment and less stupidity.

Our schools and universities are a product of the Enlightenment, as is our republic. Democracies flourish under conditions of enlightenment. They falter when ignorance grows. They thrive when citizens dare to be wise.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article78862672.html#storylink=cpy

Shutdown raises questions

Fresno Bee

October 4, 2013


We don’t really think about our tools until they break. The proper functioning of a car, for example, is simply taken for granted. But when your car breaks down, you may stop to wonder whether it is time to get a new one — or even to switch to a bicycle.

In recent days, it is the government that has had a breakdown. Is it time to replace the 225-year-old vehicle of the Constitution with a different one?

Thomas Jefferson once suggested, in a letter to James Madison, that no society can make a perpetual constitution. As Jefferson put it in 1789, the earth belongs to the living, not the dead. Each generation is entitled to reassess the rules and institutions under which it lives. Jefferson suggested that every 19 years or so, the previous constitution naturally expires.

But we venerate our good old Constitution, often forgetting that it was the result of compromise and war, produced by men who were not perfect. The “three-fifths compromise” is one notorious bargain, intended to get slave-holders to accept the document by counting slaves as partial persons. A brutal Civil War resolved the constitutional crisis caused by slave-holding states who challenged the power of the federal government.

But structural problems remain. Consider the system of representation. A compromise gives all states equal representation in the Senate, while state populations are more evenly represented in the House. This gives small states inordinate power in the Senate.

And some citizens have no representation in the Senate. Residents of the District of Columbia outnumber the residents of small states such as Wyoming or Vermont. But Vermont and Wyoming each get two Senators, while D.C. gets none. Similar lack of representation holds for citizens of Puerto Rico, whose population outnumbers that of dozens of states.

A further problem is that presidential elections occur through Electoral College votes. In combination with the winner-takes-all voting procedure, this gives inordinate power to swing states. And as a result, the popular vote for president does not matter.

There are other problems. Consider how odd it is to provide lifetime terms for nonelected judges, some of whom serve into their 80s. Or consider the fact that simple majorities among justices can overturn laws. Wouldn’t it make more sense for Supreme Court justices to serve limited terms — or to increase the number of justices, or to appoint justices by geographical region or to require more than a one-vote majority to overturn a law?

The Constitution does allow amendments. But the requirements of the amendment process are onerous. A two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress is needed to propose an amendment, which must be ratified by three-fourths of the states. In the era of two-party partisanship, amendments are rare. The last amendment lowered the voting age to 18 — in 1971. How many new cars have your purchased since 1971?

Other problems include the two-party system and the power of lobbyists and special-interest money. The outcomes and results have not been great in recent years: unjust wars, governmental spying, the use of torture, lobbying scandals, massive debt, biased enforcement at the IRS, economic inequality and now a government shutdown. The glitches and flaws in the system should incense both Republicans and Democrats.

Every school child learns that the three branches of government and the bicameral legislature create a system of checks and balances. This system does not facilitate seamless and speedy decision-making. Instead, this vehicle is built for safety and stability — by protecting the rights of individuals and minorities.

The current shutdown occurred is an example of this. A few representatives in one house of Congress manipulated the system. It depends on your perspective as to whether this is a good or bad thing. But the shutdown is legal and permitted by the Constitution.

Some may think that this indicates the need for a trade-in. The 19-year lease on constitutions imagined by Jefferson expired long ago. But perhaps we prefer our rusty, inefficient old clunker. Given our disagreements, we’d never be able to agree to a new make and model. In the meantime, let’s hope the congressional grease monkeys get our jalopy back on the road again soon.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2013/10/04/3535794/shut-down-raises-questions-about.html#storylink=cpy