Calculus, Mauritania, and Tiramisu: A Man and His Ignorance

January 22, 2020 Updated: January 22, 2020


My online dictionary gives several definitions for this word. Here is the second: “lacking knowledge, information, or awareness about a particular thing.”

That’s the one we’ll go with here.

Most of us know people we regard as ignorant. They may lack table manners, having never been taught. They may take all of their news at face value from one television station. They may believe the world is flat, men have never set foot on the moon, or health care should be “free.”

Naturally, few of us wish to be labeled as ignorant. A stigma attaches itself to the word, though surely ignorance trumps stupidity. The former can be altered through education, the latter, at least to me, means making a decision that flies in the face of all reason. Better ignorant than stupid.

Nevertheless, no one wants to be considered ignorant, and yet all of us, in some way or the other, fit the definition.

Because I have no wish to cast aspersions on anyone else, I will take for my example JM. He is someone I know well, and good sport that he is, my comments will bother him no more than a summer shower.

The Boundless Ignorance of JM

JM is a man of average intelligence, but he is sometimes stupid. He does things he knows are bad for his health or his bank account. Sometimes he acts like a complete idiot. Once, for example, with four grandchildren in his car, he pretended to drive from a parking lot into an open field and instead drove straight into a small ditch he hadn’t noticed at the edge of the field. Fortunately, a good man with a pickup and a chain pulled JM back onto the asphalt. He was ignorant of the ditch, but stupid to be showing off.

Rest assured, however, that JM is an ignorant man. He sees himself, in fact, as a sort of King of Ignorance, an Emperor of Unenlightenment. Here is a short list of what he doesn’t know.

If a Martian visited JM and asked him to explain how his microwave worked, JM would be baffled. The same holds true for his laptop computer, his phone, his car, the alarm on his old clock radio, and the tablet he never uses. He has some foggy idea of the way these machines operate, but could not explain them to anyone in detail.

His ignorance extends to academic subjects. Though he minored in math in college, and took courses in astronomy, physics, and chemistry in high school and college, today JM is unable to solve the simplest problem in calculus. He still doesn’t understand the idea of a “mole” in chemistry, can only marvel at the stars, and retains only a few concepts from physics. 

In the realm of finance—banking, stocks, and so on—JM is again an ignorant man, largely from a lack of interest. Talk to him of insurance or investment matters, and a curtain descends in his brain. Tell him he should open a CD, and he thinks you mean a disc that conveys songs and stories. While you’re describing ways to do online brokering, he’s trying to remember the name of the author of “1,000 Books to Read Before You Die.” 

In certain areas of the arts, his ignorance is equally rotund. Of ballet, he is familiar only with “The Nutcracker.” While he enjoys the music of Brahms, Mozart, and Bach, his knowledge of classical music is abysmal. He has read widely in history and literature, yet can’t find Mauritania on a map or remember Muhammad’s successor. 

Ask JM to name three fine wines from California, and he will simply stare at you. Ask him to name the ingredients in tiramisu, and he will scratch his head. Ask him to tell you the time in Moscow when it’s 2 p.m. in Front Royal, and silence will be your answer.

Current Affairs

Turn to the burning issues of the day, and JM will express his opinions, but these are thoughts based on feeling and instinct, not always on knowledge. Climate change? He will tell you he is unqualified to answer, as he is not a scientist, but that he believes the issue is politicized. Tell him there are more than two sexes, and he will disagree, basing his response on the biology courses he took in high school and college, and on that neglected tool, observation and commonsense. Tell him that transgenders should be allowed to participate in women’s sports, and he will again disagree, pointing back to biology and to the rights of women athletes. 

The Old Dog has learned one new trick: Questions are superior to contentious arguments. Mention that you wish America to become socialist, and he will ask you which socialist country you most admire and why. Tell him that America is racist, and he will ask you to provide current examples of institutionalized racism in the United States. 

Of Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson once said, “His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge.”

Of JM, we might safely say, and JM would agree, “His ignorance far exceeded his knowledge.”

Too Soon Old, but Not Too Late Smart

There is one silver lining in JM’s realization and acceptance of his ignorance. 

When JM was a boy, his mother, who hailed from Pennsylvania, kept this Pennsylvania Dutch aphorism on a plaque in the kitchen: “Ve get too soon oldt undt too late schmart.” 

Now that he is “oldt,” JM remains ignorant, but he has gotten “schmart” in that he acknowledges in himself an ignorance as vast as the Sahara. He knows what he doesn’t know, a recognition that, if remembered and practiced, sometimes leads him to consider the behavior and opinions of others with greater charity. 

At any rate, his ignorance did lead JM to look up Mauritania on a map—West Africa on the coast—and to learn that tiramisu contains, among other ingredients, ladyfingers and brandy. 

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See to follow his blog.