One of the most oft-misquoted lines in English literature is the three-word escape clause “ignorance is bliss.” You’ve heard it often, probably when the speaker wants to brush off some awkward fact or rumor.
Readers of Lingua Franca know, of course, that this famous observation by Alexander Pope does not endorse ignorance.
Also it’s not Pope. It’s Thomas Gray, whose best-known poem is “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.”
But it’s not from that one either — “ignorance is bliss” is a half-remembered fragment of Gray’s “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College.” You’ve got this now.
Gray’s poem is an elegy, a sober reflection on the passing of all things mortal. His speaker, seeing in the distance the beloved spires of Eton, reflects that every boy there will soon be vulnerable to pain and unkindness, poverty and despair, and then, finally, death. Some of the boys-to-men will be compassionate, and their groans will be for others; some will only groan for themselves. But, the poet, assures us, we’re all in for it. Even Gray can’t take much more of this. He ends the poem:
’Tis folly to be wise.
The bliss Gray is talking about is the protective innocence of childhood in the cloistered house of learning. To give that up before you need to is folly. Besides, innocence gives up on us before we have a chance to give up on it.
Gray’s not endorsing ignorance, much less equating it with bliss. He’s not saying we’re happy when we don’t know about attacks on our neighbors or about a bad regulation that doesn’t seem to affect us, just the nameless folks in the next town. That’s not blissful ignorance — it’s only the New Cruelty doing its business.
Gazing with 18th-century eyes at a school founded in the 15th, Gray was spared the crisis of modern higher ed, with its troubles both self-inflicted and imposed.
But I can hear in the title of this elegy the words a distant prospect of college and find myself connecting it to the hurdles we’ve placed — and continue to place — on helping students get into college and afford to stay there.
We know that much of the aggregate student debt in the United States is attached to for-profit colleges (at least there’s truth in advertising), for whom students are an income stream. We also know that the budget for public university education, once funded by enlightened and persuasive legislators and a forward-looking citizenry, is being crippled, state by state, campus by campus. The current administration is now looking to cut federal assistance to those who need it most, apparently just because.
This is folly on a national scale, because it refuses to see the value of investing in our children and young adults. We want them to get an education for themselves, but we also want them to get an education for us, so that they can become better — more creative, braver, more compassionate — versions of the people even we ourselves once hoped to become.
Colleges are struggling — in good if perhaps not nearly sufficient ways — to make higher education not a distant prospect but a very real possibility. It’s not just about money, of course, but the money question is always hacking away at the ability of families to see that distant college as something real — and real for them.
Readers of 18th-century literature — as well as readers in possession of extensive and well-decorated acreage — will also recognize folly as “a popular name for any costly structure considered to have shown folly in the builder.” (That’s OED definition 5.a. I skip over the earlier entries, which include error, wickedness, wrong-doing, and crime.) Perhaps you’ve erected your folly somewhere beyond your gazebo and your ha-ha (a ha-ha, as you know, is the sunken boundary that keeps your animals from wandering).
“Ha-ha” is also a lexical sign of laughter. There’s nothing funny, however, in the staggering, and much derided, news that our federal government imagines building a folly on our southern border with funds removed from environmental and other programs of long-term value, such as support for the arts and education.
Gray envisaged the grim and inevitable futures the Eton boys had before them (and these were Eton boys):
The ministers of human fate
To the inevitabilities Gray recounts we’ve added our own modern-day economic constraints. Punishing, censorious, and ill-informed, our own ministers are busy indeed.
The Mexican wall is one folly; this grand plan to impoverish both students and universities is another.
They’re both walls, and they’re both terrible ideas.
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