Miseducation: A History of Ignorance-Making in America and Abroad

reviewed by Craig A. Cunningham - May 22, 2017

coverTitle: Miseducation: A History of Ignorance-Making in America and Abroad
Author(s): A.J. Agnulo
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore
ISBN: 1421419327, Pages: 384, Year: 2016
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“Agnotology” is not a word that I had encountered prior to reading this expansive and provocative work. Coined in the 19th century as “agnoiology” by James Frederick Ferrier and revived in the 21st century by Robert Proctor, agnotology designates the systematic study of ignorance: its breadth and depth in populations, its origins and effects, and its conscious reproduction and dissolution. Agnotology also encompasses the methodologies used for studying ignorance: not only to understand its etiology and transmission, but also to harness proven methods of ignorance-making to preserve political or economic interests.

A.D. Angulo has personally spearheaded the application of agnotology to the history of education, and assembled for this book a diverse and skillful group of historians to examine ignorance in various historic, geographic, and methodological contexts. Fourteen fascinating and well-referenced chapters focus on how the legal system has promulgated ignorance, for example in the cases of slavery, sex, sexuality, evolution, and the environment, as well as how myth-making and ignorance-making go hand in hand around issues of class, identity, religion and history. It also discusses the global relationship between nationalism and ignorance, with instances in the US, Germany, the USSR, Israel, and China. Angulo frames the discussion in a helpful introduction and identifies some common themes and opportunities for further study in an incisive conclusion.

While ignorance is to some extent a native attribute of persons in that we are born not knowing much explicitly, it is also passively learned, continuously and unconsciously, through our heritage, culture, and our very language, thus becoming habitual and pernicious. Ignorance is actually a necessary feature of human consciousness, since we cannot possibly learn or remember everything, even that which we personally experience. Cultures emphasize some knowledge while occluding other knowledge. Memes and myths distort as much as they reveal. Theories such as evolution simultaneously give rise to antithetical positions such as antievolution (p. 73). Consider for a moment how words such as “child” or “Asian American” or “frontier” contain myriad connotations and denotations, or how a word such as “freedom” can contribute to acceptance of profound and growing economic inequality.

Perhaps most importantly, ignorance is also actively produced by those interested in maintaining or achieving certain political or economic goals, often aided and abetted through larger social constructions. As discussed in the chapter on slavery by Kim Tolley, slave owners worked through both legal and extralegal channels to prevent slaves from learning how to read, for fear that literacy would enable radicalization and insurrection, emboldening those who argued for intellectual equality among the races. Capitalism itself is reliant on advertising, which is a form of propaganda explicitly designed to hide some truths and overemphasize others. The tobacco industry, which is discussed by Kevin C. Elliott in the chapter on the environment, worked for decades to disseminate a view that smoking was either harmless or even health-producing. The methods employed by the tobacco industry are currently being used by the fossil fuels industry to reduce acceptance of science related to global warming and climate change.

But the production of ignorance is often not so obviously motivated by self-interest. The American media tried to serve the “public interest” (p. 37) through suppressing discussion of sexually-transmitted diseases, discussed in the chapter on sex and sexuality by Jennifer Burek Pierce and Matt Pierce, based on the belief that any discussion of sex would destroy the “innocence” of youth and encourage them to engage in premarital sex. Groups seeking to reduce the incidence of teenage sex have more recently pursued policies of “abstinence-only” sex education, believing that to discuss methods of birth control would increase interest in sex. Progressive education, eulogized by some as providing children with the opportunity to form their own personal knowledge through hands-on experiences and critical dialogue, often produces ignorance through a process described in the chapter on economic class by Daniel Perlstein as “unlearning by doing” (p. 135). The explicit promulgation of what might be called “alternative facts” through school textbooks, described in a chapter on faith and religion by Adam Laats and later in a chapter by Lisa Pine, can be seen from one perspective as blatantly disingenuous or even evil, while from another it can be understood as a vigorous defense of one set of religious or nationalistic beliefs over another. All textbooks are selective, choosing what to include, exclude, dismiss, or elaborate; whether they involve censorship is often a matter of judgment.

Situations that are complex in themselves or in how they are perceived are especially ripe for the promulgation of ignorance in a population, where the demand for simplification, undeniable certainty, or false optimism drown out the voices seeking nuance, subtlety, or the precision demanded by science. It can also be argued that scientific types often obfuscate reality by dismissing or ignoring the perspectives of those with more passionate or values-oriented views. This may be one source of the contemporary revolt against “elites” in some political contexts in America and abroad.

Miseducation will be especially useful to advanced graduate students and researchers seeking to understand these specific situations, or to gain a broader understanding of the methods and findings of agnotology. The book also provides fourteen detailed case studies that can serve as fodder for the intensive study of historiography. While this particular book may be very detailed and advanced, Angulo also compellingly proposes a new focus on the methods and antidotes to ignorance-making in teacher education programs, whether through new courses centered on history, or as new emphases in methods courses. Agnotology provides a language and framework with which these issues can be discussed in foundations of education classes, specifically to augment discussions of the importance of critical thinking, critical literacies, and the common good. Through a better understanding of ignorance, teacher candidates and in-service teachers can more consciously reflect on their own educations, and perhaps shield their students from some of the most pernicious examples of state-sponsored ignorance-making.

My only criticism of this book is that, while it mentions “critical thinking” numerous times, there is no discussion of the school’s role in developing critical consciousness through critical pedagogy such as that advocated by Paolo Freire or Joel Spring. Even the chapter on class, which highlights the ways that some progressive schools “served to discourage students’ engagement with their most pressing political and economic questions,” and which emphasizes the “need to imagine democratic communities,” and encourage students’ thinking about the “complexities of class” (p. 136-37), stops short of offering specific pedagogical or curricular approaches. But rather than a limitation, this lacuna exemplifies the book’s generativity. On the whole, it is a masterful book that will help to define a subfield in the history of education and will also influence scholars who study educational law, policy, economics, psychology, and philosophy for years to come.



Proctor, R.N. & L. Schiebinger, eds. (2008). Agnotology: the making and unmaking of ignorance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 22, 2017
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21984, Date Accessed: 10/16/2021 11:36:08 AM

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