Is Ignorance Bliss?

I am continuing a long thread of thoughts concerning the motivation to learn, started here with a chart that is central to my thinking.  The first internal motivation to learn that I wish to address is the general category of “fear.”  As this can be a confusing term, I will first define “fear” then seek to show at least four possible fears that motivate one to learn.

Fear can be both a negative and a positive emotion.  Negatively, it sparks in us the desire to either fight or flee from the scene.  This negative reaction occurs when we face some challenge or circumstance the consequences of which we believe will cause us pain or loss.  When I fearfully stare down or run from a bully, I am afraid because he might physically or socially harm me.  I am up against something capable of “defeating” me and I fear such defeat may harm me.

On a positive note, many of our fears are simply the safety mechanism by which better choices are chosen.  When I fear electrocution while seeking to install a ceiling fan, I am simply giving the power of electricity its due respect.  I would count this as a positive thing, as it is wise to respect something that can in fact harm and even kill me.  To not fear such things would be closer to a negative than the actual fearing of them.

In thinking through motivations to learning, I have listed fear as a major internal motivator.  I sense that fear is a major motivator for many of our modern choices.  I have specifically highlighted four forms of fear that deserve to each be developed with a blog post of their own:  Ignorance, Materialism or the “job fear,” the expectations of others or “mob fear,” and finally the fear of God, which is the beginning of wisdom.  I develop the first three as more or less negative fears and the last one as a positive.  The rest of this post deals with the first one, a fear of ignorance.

Aristotle begins his Metaphysics by claiming that “All men by nature desire to know.”  Thus, if he is true, then all men have some fear of “not knowing.”  Some have tried to shorten Thomas Gray’s line from his Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College, in which he states “Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.”  They want to state that ignorance is always bliss.  I find little justification for this change, even though there are circumstances in which we would rather not know, as knowledge brings pain and unpleasant duties, nonetheless knowledge is better than ignorance, and more surely leads us to happiness.

So most men are motivated to learn by a fear of being left out, of being left in darkness, of not knowing what might be known.  This is a motivation worthy of some exploration in the classroom.  Asking compelling questions can excite this fear.  The question incites a seeking of the answer because it is something we do not wish to remain ignorant of.  I think this is what is behind a great class to some extent:  the student sees the possibilities of knowledge and is not content with ignorance, rather fears they will be left behind if they don’t find out answers to compelling or “great” questions.  While not a suitable motivation for all learning, this certainly plays its part.


The behaviorist does not seem willing to credit this fear sufficiently.  He wants us to motivate with the fear of punishment and the desire for reward.  Perhaps we would be better served to award a student with acquired knowledge than with a proverbial carrot of some other kind.  The typical student wants to know some things, so let the teacher channel this fear of ignorance into the noon day light of knowledge.


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