Ignorance and Freedom
When Thomas Jefferson said, "No people can be both ignorant and free," he was commenting on the importance of an educated citizenry. Americans certainly believe that they are free. Does this mean that Americans are not ignorant? According to Jefferson, after all, freedom cannot exist where there is ignorance. [This brief paragraph is the explanation. It explains the subject of my reflection, which is the quote from Thomas Jefferson. The explanation is brief because the quote is brief; I have simply used this first paragraph to make it clear that I am reflecting on the relationship between ignorance and freedom. A more complex/lengthier subject for reflection will, necessarily, require a longer explanation.]
In his book The Twilight of American Culture, Morris Berman provides quite a bit of convincing evidence for what he calls "the collapse of American intelligence" (33). A New York Times article in 1995, he reports, revealed that 40% of Americans were ignorant of the fact that in World War II, the United States fought against Germany (34). The three branches of government were correctly identified by less than half of American teenagers (35), and MORE than half of the adults who took a National Science Foundation survey in 1995 said that the time it takes the earth to travel around the sun equals a day or a month (36). Berman also mentions the U.S.'s low literacy rate (49th among 158 U.N. members) and a survey result showing that only 4% of 17-year-olds could read a bus schedule (36).
My own experiences and observations have tended to support the idea that Americans are ignorant. Despite the fact that there is not, nor has there ever been, a shred of evidence linking Saddam Hussein to the 9/11 terrorists, a recent survey revealed that 69% of Americans believe that Saddam Hussein "had something to do with" the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. I also read recently that most Democrats cannot name the ten candidates in the race for the party nomination. Most people I talk to have never heard of genetically modified foods, let alone considered whether they want to be eating such foods. And although many people I talk to pepper their conversations with references to sit-com characters and sports figures, I find it frustrating that none of them can discuss anything that is reported in the European newspapers readily available on-line. [This two-paragraph section is an exploration; I am considering my assumptions about Americans' ignorance by reviewing what I've read about it and what I've experienced.]
But if Americans are so ignorant, how can they be called, or consider themselves, "free?" It's possible that what contemporary Americans mean by "free" is different from what Jefferson meant and may be different from what I mean by "free." [Here is my conjecture – my path for expanded speculation and analysis.]
I stated earlier that Americans believe that they are free. George Bush rallies Americans against enemies by claiming that these enemies "hate freedom." Americans are used to hearing their country described as the "leader of the free world." "Freedom of choice" and "it's a free country" are phrases often repeated by Americans. But what does "free" mean to them? Berman argues that for most Americans, "democracy [freedom] will be nothing more that the right to shop, or to choose between Wendy's and Burger King, or to stare at CNN and think that this managed infotainment is actually news" (121). This quote reminds me of the arguments made in favor of SUVs. Their proponents always make the point that they are "free" to drive whatever vehicles they choose, regardless of the impact on the rest of society. Some time ago my husband told me about some survey results in which over 50% of people described making a large purchase as a "euphoric" experience. "Freedom" seems more and more to mean "the right to buy and to have." I don't think that Jefferson was using the word in quite this way.
A synonym for 'freedom' is 'liberty,' which is defined as "the condition of being not subject to constraint or control." If "freedom" means "not being subject to control by the government or other powers," it is obvious that 'ignorance' and 'freedom' are mutually exclusive. A good example is the way the American public was "controlled" into supporting the invasion of Iraq. It was, in part, the public's ignorance of the facts (or lack thereof) about an Iraq/September 11 link that allowed the administration to make a war on Saddam Hussein an urgent part of the so-called 'war on terrorism.' Is it "freedom" to have been manipulated into supporting something as serious as a war? And that manipulation was possible because of ignorance. It is not a stretch to imagine that a population so unknowledgeable about facts is also not very likely to be inclined to go further intellectually and to think critically and deeply. And people who don't think critically about what they are told can probably be controlled by the government, by advertisers, and by all manner of powerful forces.
I think that Americans limit their thinking about their liberty to purely personal concerns; having no one put constraints on their behaviors (listening to loud music in a public place, for instance) and not having the size of their automobiles 'controlled' by the government equal "freedom" to most people nowadays. And, clearly, if my evidence is reliable, it is possible to be ignorant and to have this kind of freedom. [You have just read the analysis. Notice the "bending back" in referring back to the readings and ideas mentioned earlier in the essay. This material has been examined in more depth and re-evaluated.]
It seems likely, then, that "free" has taken on a much more personal and materialistic meaning than it used to have. I'm not sure I like the implications of this change. Does it mean that people's spheres of concern are narrowing to encompass only their personal experiences and possessions? If so, what kind of society will develop? Apparently, many people are ignorant and still believe they are as 'free' as they need to be to be happy. Does that mean that knowledge and critical thought will become less and less important? The idea that people can be easily controlled because they are ignorant is frightening to me, and the fact that unfree people believe they are free just because they can buy what they want is really sad. I would like to continue to observe how the concept of "free" changes as more years pass. Certainly my new understanding of the relationship between freedom and ignorance will have a great impact on me and my relationship with my culture. [The synthesis explores some implications and consequences. You can see that even though there are some questions, there is also a definite new perspective on the subject of reflection.]