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.





Late every school year things start to whirl out of control.  It is at such moments that many educators start to contemplate the issue of motivation.  I don’t know if any of the following is helpful, but it does help me to line it out…

The Problem:

In order for a student to learn, they must be attentive to the idea being acquired.  Many in our day find attending for an extended time difficult, and many just don’t see the point of learning.  So the problem is seeking to find a way to bring students to prolonged attention upon the lesson before the class.

Considerations and Factors:

  • Few children today are taught to attend either by their parents or their teachers.  This is a fundamental issue at the heart of the problem.
  • Many teachers today form lessons that are hard to attend to, in part due to a changing definition of education and in part because they themselves, working off the model of their own teachers, have a poor education themselves (I include myself in this group, so please don’t be offended, it might not apply to you).
  • Due to our move from normative education (which calls students to a high ideal) to something more akin to vocational training (which calls students to a good paycheck) it is harder to become passionate about education thereby be motivated to excel, because the ideals are gone.
  • At the center of motivation, at least as I understand it, is the heart.  It must be nourished on truth, goodness, and beauty so that it can properly order its affections and steer both the mind’s thoughts and the belly’s appetites toward a high calling (most notably “the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.,” see Phil. 3:14).

Possible Solutions:

To solve this problem of motivation, I see several suggested solutions in our current educational culture:

  1. Move the Standards of Excellence to the middle of the road so students find success redefined in much easier terms.
  2. Continue to press the “money” button as this is the only true motivation of the modern man – study or you won’t “get anywhere” in life.
  3. Carrot and Stick – modify the student’s behaviors by rewarding the grade hound and punishing the losers (ie. the low grade student).
  4. Let’s make learning fun – related to “1” above, this solution calls for us to use games, technology, parties, whatever is at hand and considered “motivating” at the moment to bring short term performance oriented results.
  5. Considering the problem above, one might simply work through the considerations and factors and seek to change some or all of those:
    • Teach the habits of mind that aid in attending – teach the memory, teach the tastes, teach the love of hard work, etc.
    • Focus on developing teachers who develop truly “interesting” or real lesson plans – have them teach from an overflowing and well educated heart, rather than the latest “book” (this will take generations to pull off).
    • Reorient education to norms again (this is why I tout Hick’s Norms and Nobility so much).  This is closely related to Adler’s call for the high school seminar – reorienting the classroom toward ideas away from “bare facts” or “skills” will do much to recover the student’s interest in the lessons taught.
    • But in the end, perhaps the most helpful thought I can share is the recognition that there is no silver bullet – no one “idea” will reform education.  The loss of true education in America was generations ago, and it was a loss of our collective soul, so you can’t simply write, read, preach, workshop, or pull things back into shape.  We must first recover our soul.  And that is a large task that requires supra human help.