To keep up with my ten-year-old son and the fourteen-year-old boy I tutor twice a week I resolved to review my forty-some-year-old knowledge of algebra and the way the school district teaches it. In effect, I’m doing my homework and discovering my ignorance is shamefully unignorable. I’ve always taken a recreational interest in math so my plight resembles that of the dilettante who knows a lot of vocabulary in a foreign language but no grammar. Communication is possible but awkward. As though to comfort me, Joe, a reader in New York City, asks if I know Philip Larkin’s “Ignorance” (The Whitsun Weddings, 1964):
“Strange to know nothing, never to be sure
Of what is true or right or real,
But forced to qualify or so I feel,
Or Well, it does seem so:
Someone must know.
“Strange to be ignorant of the way things work:
Their skill at finding what they need,
Their sense of shape, and punctual spread of seed,
And willingness to change;
Yes, it is strange,
“Even to wear such knowledge - for our flesh
Surrounds us with its own decisions -
And yet spend all our life on imprecisions,
That when we start to die
Have no idea why.”
I am indeed “ignorant of the way things work.” My knowledge of automobiles stops at the gas pump. I don’t know how to load a shotgun, ice skate, make chimichurri, dance, write a proper bibliography, box, apply stucco, carve a turkey, perform CPR or post a photo on this blog. I had to study before I could remember how to balance a simple quadratic equation. Optimistically, I would have lasted three days in Chaucer’s England.
On another level, the level of paradox, my ignorance proliferates: The more I learn, the more I learn how little I know, and a lot of what I think I know is questionable. In some areas, I can agree with Samuel Johnson in The Rambler #103: “We are more pained by ignorance than delighted by instruction.” I take no delight in relearning algebra but it eases the pain (and wounded pride) of incompetence. Pride is the rub, as Johnson knew. This is from The Rambler #137:
"Nothing has so exposed men of learning to contempt and ridicule as their ignorance of things which are known to all but themselves. Those who have been taught to consider the institutions of the schools as giving the last perfection to human abilities are surprised to see men wrinkled with study, yet wanting to be instructed in the minute circumstances of propriety, or the necessary form of daily transaction; and quickly shake off their reverence for modes of education which they find to produce no ability above the rest of mankind."