The Scourge of Unteachability

The Scourge of Unteachability December 18, 2016

I recently posted a bon mot on Facebook. It read, “Stupidity is not a moral issue. Ignorance is.” To explain what I meant, I need to define some terms.

“Stupidity” is not a polite word. Stupid people become very upset and offended when their stupidity is even mentioned. And it truly is uncompassionate to use that term to or about people whose stupidity is congenital, that is, people with such a low IQ that they are unable to understand abstract concepts. That is why stupidity is not a moral issue, any more than inability to walk on water would be. No other choice could be made by such people.

By ignorance I do not mean not knowing some mundane fact just yet. I mean “Invincible Ignorance,”  as the inability or refusal to learn anything new that is important. All True Believers of any religion, including Scientism, who believe they know a final and absolute truth, beyond which there is nothing new to be learned, suffer from unteachability, which is universally the most devastating mental illness that is plaguing our species.

All mental illnesses share a common trait: they reduce one’s ability to deal with reality. IQ is strictly a measurement of one’s speed of learning. If one cannot learn anything new at all, one’s IQ has effectively been reduced to zero, and one becomes steadily less able to deal with the ever-changing reality of the world.

I had thought years ago that people who could no longer learn anything new seemed to be suffering from a mental illness, but I had not focused on its cause until my friend Alex said, at an AA meeting, that to get sober, one must be teachable. That was a genuine AHA! moment for me. Getting sober, breaking through one’s own addictive personality, requires rethinking everything one had thought was true about oneself. It is human nature (or maybe nurture) that very few people will do that sort of massive work on themselves unless faced with the threat of death.  Succeeding in that work depends on only one decision, the one in the third step. Would it not be desirable if all illnesses could be cured by a simple decision to stop being sick?

Similarly, breaking out of the pattern of being unteachable requires only one decision; it is the failure to make that decision that renders ignorance a moral issue. Nothing is a moral issue unless it harms people. Invincible Ignorance harms people, because unrealistic decisions have harmful consequences,

Such ignorance is not always obvious. I have known extremely intelligent writers who formed their worldview in their early twenties—then never changed it in any significant way for the rest of their lives. They generally called their inability to change “integrity.”  They would fight against any information that might demand a rethinking of their assumptions, often resorting to thoroughly unparsimonious atrguments.

As Scott Peck described this issue, people always have a “map of reality”; such a map is necessary, because one cannot know all of reality. But when unteachable persons are told a new fact that does not fit anywhere on their map, they refuse to believe that fact is true. Instead they often “shoot the messenger,” hoping the fact will then go away. It never does. Peck pointed out that much evil has been done by people who have refused to update their maps in light of new information.

I suppose I am asking you to examine your conscience. Are you unteachable? Is your life far less than perfect because you have failed to make a decision that would enable to make fundamental changes in your self-concept and in your lifestyle? Only you can know that. But consider this: is it not rather pathetic for men in their 60s to do nothing but play the songs they wrote 40 years ago?


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