By Oswald Sobrino, J.D.; M.A. (Econ.); M.A. (Theo.); M.L. (Master of Latin), doctoral student, University of Florida.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The "Learned Ignoramus"

Phi Beta Kappa KeyImage via WikipediaIt is a phrase that I take from the philosopher Ortega y Gasset. In this excerpt by Antón Donoso of the University of Detroit, we see the context for this provocative phrase:

The specialist was a new creation in history. Previously, people could be simply divided intellectually into one of two categories: the learned and the ignorant, with everyone more or less in one category or the other. He [the specialist] is neither learned in the former sense of seeing the part in its contextual whole, of understanding the superficial through the fundamental, nor ignorant in the former sense, since he knows quite well his own tiny portion of reality. In Ortega's words: "We shall have to say that he is a learned ignoramus, which is a very serious matter, as it implies that he is a person who is ignorant, not in the fashion of the ignorant man, but with all the petulance of one who is learned in his own special line." 

Donoso, "The University Graduate as Learned Ignoramus According to Ortega," in Ortega y Gasset Centennial, University of New Mexico (Madrid: José Porrúa Turanzas, 1983), p. 10.

Ortega is aiming at the specialist, whether in the natural sciences or the humanities, who in spite of all his or her credentialed learning remains an ignoramus. The mark of the ignoramus is the proliferation of opinions, often expressed with emphatic certainty, which are not based on study or research or personal experience. You can find the typical, bare ignoramus at the local bar, pontificating on all the ills of the world with a massive self-assurance that contrasts with his usually miserable personal lifestyle. The  variety known as the learned ignoramus is then the one who does the same thing but in his medical office or his courtroom or his faculty lounge or his laboratory. The specialist, inflated by his own narrow accomplishments, decides to snap his fingers and judge areas of knowledge about which he lacks the faintest understanding or even the honest desire to understand. The usual mode of reasoning of the learned ignoramus is this: if I do not understand it, then it must be nonsense or madness or contrary to common sense. What is missing is any realization that he may not be able to understand something or he may not wish to understand something that undermines his comfortable, personally convenient worldview.

In my own experience, I have seen some holders of Phi Beta Kappa keys and of the equivalent law school honor (known as the Order of the Coif)** to be abject intellectual mediocrities with a weak grasp even of their own chosen specialties. I believe that, in our age of mass education, my personal observations are not unique. Of course, the challenge is not to engage in elitist disparagement of wide educational opportunity but to expose university and post-university graduates to the limits of their own specializations. The truth that many of us learn with age is to take credentials with a grain of salt. Credentials, honors, and specialization alone do not make one learned. They never have. They never will. When you meet the truly learned person, you will know it even without previewing a curriculum vitae or resumé. Or seeing the diplomas on the wall.


**Certainly, this observation does not apply to all holders of such honors.

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