“Teaching Ignorance”: that’s the title of a famous essay by the literary critic Barbara Johnson, published in a 1982 issue of Yale French Studies that she edited under the rubric “The Pedagogical Imperative: Teaching as a Literary Genre.” Johnson’s example is a classic one, from three and a half centuries ago: Molière’s The School for Wives. In that play, old Arnolphe is gripped by the fear of an unfaithful wife. And he equates women’s infidelity with their worldly knowledge. So he adopts a four-year-old peasant, and has her raised in a nunnery. The point is to have her arrive at marriageable age knowing nothing of the ways of the world, wholly “pure,” and so to marry her without risk of cukoldry. The very principle of his teaching is therefore the prevention of unwanted knowledge, and the inculcation in its place of non-knowledge. As Johnson puts it, “Arnolphe has been handling Agnes’ sex education simply by attempting to insure that no learning will take place.”
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To achieve this laudable end, the teacher must establish himself as the authoritative and sole source of knowledge. But when Agnes meets young Horace, Horace begins to instruct her otherwise — through his admiration for her. Horace indeed will claim love as teacher: “Love is a great teacher, you must agree, / Making us what we never thought to be.” “It is impossible for Arnolphe to cast doubt on the meaning of Horace’s pleasurable lessons without at the same time instructing Agnes in the possibility of deception and the manipulation of appearance,” notes Johnson. You can’t drive out Satan without acknowledging his wiles.
And so there come to be two teachers in Agnes’s life, and when that happens she proves herself a quick learner. There’s a lesson there: Students evidently learn through debating conflicting points of view. But Arnolphe’s philosophy of education rejects dialogue. “I speak, you obey,” he tells Agnes. “That, in its simplest terms, is Arnolphe’s conception of teaching,” Johnson comments. “His pedagogical aim is to apply and guarantee his own mastery.” (This is still, for many, an accepted conception of what it is to teach.)
The very principle of Arnolphe’s teaching is the prevention of unwanted knowledge, and the inculcation in its place of non-knowledge.
Even if you haven’t read The School for Wives, you can guess the outcome. The “natural order” of things is restored at the end with Agnes’s marriage to Horace, and Arnolphe is humiliated. Yet Johnson, writing as a feminist, questions the societal assumptions that create this “happy ending” to Molière’s play: It may censure the abusive patriarch but finds its resolution in traditional marriage roles. She asks, “Does the educational system exist in order to promulgate knowledge, or is its main function rather to universalize a society’s tacit agreement about what it has decided it does not and cannot know?” Arnolphe’s conception of ignorance is not the only one.
Last year, PEN America drew up a useful index of what it calls educational “gag orders” legislated or proposed in several states, showing that some 99 “gag order” bills have been presented in 33 states, 13 of which have gone into effect. Among the most notorious is the Florida “Don’t Say Gay” law, designed “to prohibit classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in certain grade levels or in a specified manner.” Another Florida law gives political appointees control over universities’ core curricula and bans general-education courses that “distort significant historical events.” That ban is part of Florida’s Senate Bill 266, which became law in July 2023. Sometimes entire disciplines are declared off limits: Florida recently decided to drop sociology from the list of approved core courses at its state universities.
Florida is merely in the vanguard; many other states have proposed similar restrictions targeting students’ knowledge of history, of sexuality, of racism. It’s in the red states that so many of these restrictions actually have become law. That is ominous. As we know, in our fractured politics, political affiliation now closely tracks levels of educational achievement. To teach ignorance is, as with Arnolphe, an attempt to keep people from listening to another voice, seeking a second teacher other than the totalitarian state.
As more concepts and histories and ideas are banned and more books removed from library shelves, parts of our country will be defined by their ignorance. In the end, the goal of teaching ignorance may be doomed to failure. Johnson’s essay poses a crucial question: “How can a teacher teach a student not to know, without at the same time informing him of what it is he is supposed to be ignorant of?” If that’s right, there is some cause for hope. But it makes learning a much more difficult process of intuiting what lies behind the black line of the censor.