The High Cost of Ignorance

by Lisa Hansel
January 15th, 2014

Earlier this week, I wondered what happen to Tony, a young man who got all the way through K-12 without learning even basic American history. I stumbled onto his story just after reading (yet another) great history book—Jill Lepore’s Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin. That’s Ben’s little sister.

 

 

In many ways it’s a tale of two cities. Jane’s life was as grinding as Ben’s was glorious.

Both lived long and displayed much ingenuity. While I doubt any of Ben’s family members were as bright as he—I’m assuming he was rare indeed—Jane had to be very smart merely to survive in her situation. The biggest difference between the two of them seems to have been the opportunity to learn.

Women’s lack of education, based on a widespread belief in their innate and inexorable lack of rational, scholarly, or political abilities, runs throughout the book. We are reminded, for example, of Abigail Adams’s plea to her husband as he helped devise new laws for our new nation: “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.” And of John’s response: “As to your extraordinary code of laws, I cannot but laugh…. Depend upon it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems” (p. 181-82).

The contrast between this belief system and Jane’s determination to educate herself is sharp. But what really grabbed me—what came to mind as I read about Tony—was Lepore’s excerpt from a 1790 essay by Judith Sargent Murray. As Lepore writes, “Murray asked her reader to imagine the lives of a brother and sister, born very much alike.” I ask you to imagine siblings born alike in 2014, yet one raised in a low-income family and the other in a high-income family:

Will it be said that the judgment of a male of two years old, is more sage than that of a female’s of the same age? I believe the reverse is generally observed to be true. But from that period what partiality! how is the one exalted, and the other depressed, by the contrary modes of education which are adopted! the one is taught to aspire, and the other is early confined and limitted. As their years increase, the sister must be wholly domesticated, while the brother is led by the hand through all the flowery paths of science. Grant that their minds are by nature equal, yet who shall wonder at the apparent superiority, if indeed custom becomes second nature; nay if it taketh the place of nature, and that it doth the experience of each day will evince. (Lepore quoting Murray, page 230)

For century upon century, women were undereducated and assumed incapable. I wonder, how many of our least advantaged youth, like Tony, are suffering that same fate today? The only way to prevent such misunderstandings—to break this self-fulfilling prophecy—is to get the early years right.

 

 

2 Comments »

  1. [...] as Ben’s was glorious,” writes Lisa Hansel on Core Knowledge blog. Jane had little opportunity to learn because of her sex, writes Hansel. Many believed in women’s “innate and inexorable [...]

    Pingback by Undereducated and assumed incapable — Joanne Jacobs — January 22, 2014 @ 2:03 pm

  2. This idea hits home with me. When I was just a girl in high school, I remember being told by my high school counselor while creating my schedule that I must take a home economics class because I would eventually end up pregnant and married and the skills taught therein were very valuable. I learned to make a blouse in that class, that is all. I did not need to learn to cook & clean, I had already been domesticated by my parents, and missed out on the AP History class I wanted to take instead. Eventually, I took the AP History class, but I had to wait an entire semester. Not fair. I understand, that I came from a very poor neighborhood, and very humble beginings, but I was a smart, nerdy girl, not a loose homegirl. Why would I be stereotyped like that, because I was a poor hispanic girl?

    Comment by Elizabeth — January 27, 2014 @ 1:32 am

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