Harvard Educational Review
  1. Miseducation

    A History of Ignorance-Making in America and Abroad

    By A. J. Angulo

    Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016. 374 pp. $32.95 (paper).

    Research, policy, and practice in the educational field typically focus on concepts like learning and knowledge. We create standards to designate what students ought to know and investigate the methods and materials best suited to facilitate their learning of it. We study how to create classrooms, schools, and out-of-school opportunities that support learning and disentangle the demographic, social, relational, systemic, and myriad other factors that predict various learning outcomes. However, as editor A. J. Angulo argues in the commentary framing the edited volume Miseducation: A History of Ignorance-Making in America and Abroad, education scholarship has just as much to gain from a focus on what might be deemed the antithesis of knowledge: ignorance. In other words, what is it that people do not know? And, more critically, what misinformation do they know? What have they learned that is actually wrong?

    Angulo argues that ignorance is a societal inevitability manifested in diverse forms that may be perpetuated or even actively constructed through processes of miseducation and, in doing so, situates the book within an emerging field of study: agnotology, or the study of ignorance. Although historian Robert Proctor (Proctor & Schiebinger, 2008) introduced the term in 2008, agnotology’s conceptual roots extend back further. Angulo draws on Carter G. Woodson’s works, including Miseducation of the Negro (1933), which raised concerns about how schools were actively miseducating African Americans, neglecting their needs, and hobbling their preparedness to succeed later in life. Angulo then uses Bernard Bailyn’s (1960) definition of education as a process of cultural transmission in order to broaden Woodson’s conception of miseducation. In this context, education—or miseducation—is a broader phenomenon that occurs in and around schools through various media and mechanisms and that is not just for formal students but for all people.

    The fourteen chapters in this edited volume describe ignorance according to Proctor’s three-stage frame—naïve, passive, or active ignorance—with a particular focus on the last. When we describe ignorance as the blank slate on which we inscribe knowledge, we are thinking of naïve ignorance, the “absence of knowledge” (p. 5). Passive ignorance results from instances where we “limit what we know and understand” (p. 5)—like choosing to pursue one college major over another. That is, a student choosing to study Mandarin rather than French as a second language has cultivated passive ignorance in French, even as she grows knowledgeable in Mandarin. All human beings are subject to some degree of naïve and passive ignorance.

    But viewing ignorance as solely an absence or passive avoidance of certain knowledge naturally positions education as active—as a process of knowledge accrual or, depending on one’s perspective, knowledge construction. As Angulo explains, an agnotological perspective pushes us to expand our conception of ignorance to include something active, constructed, and requiring maintenance, just like learning. Miseducation begins to excavate the processes by which active ignorance is created and sustained, thus casting ignorance as an active influential force shaping culture, politics, and society throughout history.

    Miseducation’s seventeen scholars turn an agnotological lens to a diverse selection of settings and topics. Few of the chapters directly invoke schools; rather, they take a broader view of education as knowledge and narrative production wherever it may occur. Chapters are grouped into the following categories: legalizing ignorance through laws and regulations targeting particular content; mythologizing ignorance by producing false or alternate cultural narratives about a specific population or event in history; and nationalizing/globalizing ignorance by using educative processes (a combination of regulatory and cultural factors) to achieve political, economic, and ideological ends.

    These three themes categorize ignorance construction according to the contexts in which it primarily occurs—law, culture, and politics. However, additional themes emerge across these broad categories. In particular, emergent themes concerning the characteristics of ignorance construction are instructive for building an understanding of how and why ignorance persists. No matter whether ignorance construction takes place through the propagation of laws, collective mythmaking, or political endeavors, these chapters surface the common elements of humanity that create the base on which ignorance may be built. Across the three sections, the authors allude to essential emotions—doubt, fear, skepticism, faith, and the desire for power—that may be leveraged to justify ignorance making.

    For example, some chapters demonstrate the use of mythologized narratives about the past—which pivot on nostalgia, hope, and idealism—to foster social control. This concept undergirds Eileen H. Tamura’s treatment in “Identity” of the “model minority” stereotype applied to Japanese Americans interned during World War II, as well as Daniel Perlstein’s examination in “Class” of rural coal-mining communities subjected to a pioneer mythology after the Great Depression. Two other emergent themes deal not with the realm in which ignorance is constructed but with the motivations that drive it and the mechanisms that facilitate the process.

    Competing Ways of Knowing
    One of the most fascinating themes in this volume is the role of competing ways of knowing. Many of the instances of active ignorance construction raise questions about the criteria we collectively use to determine truth. Generally, the chapter authors adhere to shared scientific norms about what constitutes evidence, what assumptions properly underlie scientific and historical investigations, and the appropriate procedures for designating something as factual or true. Several reveal how prioritizing nonscientific criteria for truth (typically faith-based criteria) leads to the production of ignorance in the form of alternative scientific and/or historical narratives. In “Religion,” Adam Laats unpacks the growth of what he calls “cultural occlusion” and the construction of “systematic non-knowledge” about US history among conservative evangelical Protestants. Laats distinguishes between simple misinformation—communicating incorrect historical facts—and reinterpreting history through a deliberately occlusive hermeneutic with the explicit purpose of creating “a culturally distinct body of knowledge and way of knowing” that centers on biblical faith (p. 176). Adam R. Shapiro, in “Evolution,” makes a similar case in his exploration of the evolution/anti-evolution debate, which, like the evangelical history movement, often battles in the arena of textbooks and schools.

    Several chapters in the book explore how societal ignorance about the appropriate process and criteria for scientific knowledge creates space for alternate narratives that propagate ignorance. Shapiro makes this point persuasively, demonstrating how opponents can manufacture doubt about scientific claims by propagating a myth that “certainty” is the expected standard for science. Expecting scientists to establish certainty or to ever “have all the evidence” is, as Shapiro points out, hyperbolic and implausible, but anti-evolutionists often attempt to weaken scientists’ credibility by suggesting that they have failed to establish irrefutable proof.

    In “Environment,” Kevin C. Elliott continues in this vein, identifying seven strategies that have been used to create ignorance and mislead the public around topics of public health and environmental science, such as the risks of tobacco and climate change. Elliott’s strategies include selectively omitting, framing, and emphasizing findings; generating doubt about scientific studies as not “sound science”; and strategically marshaling scientific concepts like objectivity or fairness to support nonscientific claims. These tactics construct ignorance about both how science functions and the topics under study (e.g., climate change) in the guise of alternate standards for evidence or ways of knowing the truth. Elliott argues that many members of the public lack the necessary “critical science literacy” that would allow them to evaluate and debunk misleading narratives presented to them in the media or by private interests. Because they are unable to determine, for example, when a lobbying organization is “raising disingenuous criticisms of high-quality evidence” (p. 105), people are more likely to accept at face value the alternative narratives that propagate ignorance.

    Other chapters point out how mainstream narratives obfuscate competing ways of knowing and perpetuate ignorance that is rooted in harmful mythology about certain events or populations. For example, Donald Warren, in “History,” urges the reader to interrogate race and power structures when considering whose history is considered normative. Warren demonstrates how years of imperialist control of mainstream narratives have marginalized Indigenous history and funds of knowledge in schools and the public’s historical awareness.

    Taken together, these chapters raise questions about our collective systems of knowledge. Who decides when a way of knowing is vital but marginalized? Who decides when it is a harmful way of knowing that constructs ignorance or non-knowledge? When two ways of knowing are fundamentally opposed, how can we reconcile the evidence they produce? And how can the scholarly community and the public ensure that calls for objectivity and evidence are being made fairly to construct knowledge rather than being made unfairly and in a manipulative way to construct ignorance? Although it does not pose these questions directly, Miseducation provides a foundation for many potential lines of inquiry.

    Managing Public Opinion for Power and Private Interests
    Several chapters explore how organizations, interest groups, or political parties create social control or gather political power by redirecting public fears into false public narratives. Kim Tolley, in “Slavery,” investigates the antiliteracy laws in antebellum Georgia, demonstrating how ignorance production was legalized as a form of managing white society’s fears about security and safety, as well as their deep underlying fears about the power of educated black people. Similarly, in “Sexuality,” Karen Graves demonstrates how fears about national security produced by Cold War ideology were strategically redirected to produce false narratives about the dangers of American homosexuals. Graves details how the false rhetoric implicating homosexual educators as “predators” and “infiltrators” led to a mass purge of gay and lesbian (or suspected gay and lesbian) educators and increased censorship of educational materials, a legacy that continues to haunt the American school system.

    Other chapters investigate constructed narratives that serve more overtly political ends, although they carry sociocultural implications. Lisa Jarvainen, author of “US,” explores how the management of political speech during the late 1890s and early 1900s was able to manufacture doubt about whether or not the United States could be considered an imperialist empire, even as it was in the process of actively colonizing territories. Dongping Han and Stephen Samuel Smith in “China,” Lisa Pine in “Germany,” and Soli Vered and Daniel Bar-Tal in “Israel” highlight the importance of constructed false narratives and information control for inculcating particular political ideologies, incentivizing particular mass actions on the part of the citizenry, and condensing myriad individual experiences of citizenship into a monolithic, oversimplified myth.

    In general, the chapter authors do not devote much space to implications for current schooling practice. Two exceptions are Elliott, discussing scientific miseducation for private gain, and Perlstein, on class; both briefly allude to the need to foster critical literacies that equip students to interrogate false narratives. The arguments discussed in this section also align well with a critical pedagogical stance. By surfacing the direct relationship between private interests and widespread misconceptions, these chapters imply a need for an educated public that questions the sources and interests of the facts presented to them. Perhaps educators and agnotologists might learn from each other in striving to cultivate this thinking—as educators contribute expertise in fostering critical literacies and agnotologists offer a method for targeting and systematically examining not just what is true but also what is false, and why.

    Concluding Thoughts
    Angulo’s concluding commentary points to contemporary examples, such as the “agnotological distortions” (p. 344) surrounding Thomas Piketty’s (2014) work on economic inequality, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Angulo argues that doubt and debate about Piketty’s work serve to disguise and perpetuate inequality by fostering ignorance among those most affected. In the historical analysis presented throughout the volume, the difference between appropriate debate among knowledgeable parties who have different conclusions and the effort to dismantle harmful systems of nonknowledge may seem plain.

    However, in the case of identifying current agnotological distortions, Miseducation leaves us with perhaps more questions than answers. Agnotologists will no doubt have further work to do in furnishing theory to aid readers in distinguishing valid alternative narratives from constructed ignorance in the present, when the public may not be settled on a particular truth. Based on this volume, agnotology also has room to more specifically distinguish itself, or clarify its relationship to, other areas of inquiry. As Vered and Bar-Tal write, “Israel’s use of history for political ends is nothing new. Nation states have long used the past to inculcate patriotism, allegiance, and assimilation” (p. 295). Given the weight of existing scholarship in these areas, the volume might have done more to carefully distinguish the unique contribution of an ignorance focus as compared to other historical analysis lenses.

    That being said, Miseducation generally provides a good deal of nuance about how ignorance has been constructed throughout history and across settings. Angulo’s thoughtful commentary underscores the practical, theoretical, and even methodological potential of the perspective. For those interested in education, or the process of combating ignorance, this compendium serves as a refreshing and varied sampler of the educative potential that lies in studying ignorance itself.


    Bailyn, B. (1960). Education in the forming of American society: Needs and opportunities for study. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
    Piketty, T. (2014). Capital in the twenty-first century (A. Goldhammer, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
    Proctor, R., & Schiebinger, L. L. (2008). Agnotology: The making and unmaking of ignorance. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.
    Woodson, C. G. (1933). Miseducation of the Negro. Washington, DC: Associated Publishers.
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    Book Notes

    Tell Me So I Can Hear You
    Eleanor Drago-Severson and Jessica Blum-DeStefano

    By A. J. Angulo