Every profession is blessed with geniuses and assistant geniuses, and education has its full complement, you may be sure. They come up with the most unusual ideas.
Consider “connectivity addiction.” Schools, colleges, and other employers who encourage workers to stay connected to the internet all the time might be liable for therapy expenses if their employees fall prey to this most contemporary of compulsions. Or, at least, so says a pack of researchers at Rutgers University-Camden.
“Employers rightfully provide programs to help workers with chemical or substance addictions,” says Gayle Porter, one of the researchers, an associate professor of management at the Rutgers business school. “Addiction to technology can be equally damaging to the mental health of the worker.”
It tells us something that this theory apparently is dead serious. But it’s just yet another entry in a long history of amazing hypotheses.
History itself, as you might recall, ran out in 1992. That’s when the neo-con academic Francis Fukuyama wrote The End of History and the Last Man, in which he argued that the progression of human history as a struggle between ideologies was largely at an end. Hardly anything historic has happened since then, as you know, so I was just about to accept Fukuyama’s thesis once and for all, when along comes a development so utilitarian that I think it actually could kick-start history right back into gear.
The development is nothing less than a wholly new field of study. Professor Robert N. Proctor specializes in the history of science and technology at Stanford University. And it turns out that the historian has succeeded in making history himself.
According to the New York Times, Proctor has devised a new discipline: the study of ignorance–or “agnotology,” as he reportedly styles it. Don’t look for that term in your Webster’s (or Oxford), it’s simply too new. (Oh, yes, you’re on the bleeding edge here.) Reports the Times: “… leaders of corporations and other institutions, it turns out, are not always hungry for more information. Investigations can be costly. They can assign blame. They can uncover things that might give ammunition for lawsuits. They may delve deep into assumptions made when a system was put together, which may be outdated or expensive to change.”
“There is a lot more protectiveness than there used to be,” Professor Proctor told the newspaper. “It is often safer not to know.”
Matters suitable for agnotological scrutiny can be readily identified. They’re often associated with certain terms and set phrases (“shibboleths,” I like to call them)–active: “It’s time to look forward rather than dwell on the past”; pointedly passive: “Mistakes were made.”
As you begin to understand the beauty and subtlety of this new field, you’ll find yourself awash with cases in point.
Take those damp SAT exams last October, for example. After an investigation, moisture got the blame for the fact that some 5,000 exams were scored incorrectly. But where did the moisture come from? According to the Times, “The College Board’s president, Gaston Caperton, a former insurance executive and governor of West Virginia, said that finding the specific cause ‘did not really matter.’ What was important, he said, was to ensure that improved controls caught future problems.”
Or better still, consider the U.S. Secretary of Education. When ACT scores took a strong, unexpected jump last August, ED Secretary Margaret Spellings knew exactly what landmark legislation (with a four-letter abbreviation, beginning with “N” and ending with “B”) played a key role. See if you can catch the subtle hint at the end of this Spellings quote: “Gains were made by male and female students and across nearly every racial and ethnic group. A record number of test-takers, including a nearly 30-percent increase in Hispanic students since 2002, is another heartening sign that we are leaving fewer children behind.”
But when–just weeks later–SAT scores showed the worst decline in decades and eSchool Newsasked ED how come (story, page 14), Spellings and her minions went mum, apparently content not to know why–agnotology in full flower? Professor Proctor might deserve credit for inventing agnotology, but a luminary of the publishing trade certainly laid some important groundwork.
Elbert Green Hubbard, editor and publisher of The Philistine, a turn-of-the-last-century magazine of humor and satire that came bound in brown butcher paper (because the contents were meaty), was clearly before his time. He certainly foreshadowed a day when leaders would embrace ignorance on purpose.
“Genius may have its limitations,” Hubbard smartly observed, “but stupidity is not thus handicapped.”