Students Examine the Ethics of Ignorance in a Fall 2020 ExCollege Course

There’s a lot we don’t know. Whether from a lack of education or through social codes that encourage some level of innocence, the practice of not knowing is largely ingrained in our lives.
Trio of "see no evil", "hear no evil", and "speak no evil" monkey statues.

Instructor Magnus Ferguson, a PhD student at Boston College, approaches the understanding of ignorance from a philosophical perspective. Drawn to the interdisciplinary format of the ExCollege, Ferguson structured Ethics of Ignorance in a way that allows students to investigate social, systemic, and individual ignorance in a collaborative way.

Class meetings are organized as on-going discussions, with an emphasis on participation and interpersonal engagement rather than graded assignments. As a result, students can focus on sharing the views and observations that stand out to them instead of investing their energy in more solitary work. Though there is a written paper that students will submit at the end of the semester, participatory learning remains the most crucial part of the class.

The semester has been divided into four units: (1) Ignorance and Blame, (2) Theorizing Ignorance, (3) Responding to Ignorance, and (4) The Politics of Ignorance. Within these themes, students scrutinize readings by such famous thinkers as Aristotle and Plato as well as more contemporary works by renowned philosophers such as Linda Martín Alcoff and Charles Mills.
Magnus explains, “using a variety of texts, films, and podcasts dealing with philosophy, literature, feminism, critical-race theory, and law, this course takes an interdisciplinary and multi-media approach to clarifying what ignorance is and how we ought to respond to it.” Students inquire as to how these and other key theoretical frameworks connect to one another around the theme of social ignorance. Students are also encouraged to keep in mind ethical questions about blame, responsibility, and culpability.

While teaching in-person has been challenging this semester, Ferguson emphasized that students are adaptable and engaged in the class. Despite wearing masks and distancing throughout the class period – sometimes leading to missed facial expressions or social cues – they have still been able to facilitate strong conversations.

Students will soon turn in their final project, a semester-long effort that asked them to choose one case study of ignorance – whether from personal experience, history, or a hypothetical scenario – and use course material to evaluate the study. Having spent weeks delving into the works of several prominent philosophers, Ferguson hopes students gain greater moral perspective and contribute toward breaking down ignorance in society, one person at a time.

“I hope that one takeaway from the course is that difficult and uncomfortable questions about social ignorance are not impossible to talk about as long as we slow down and build up trust with each other. I also hope that students feel well-equipped to enter into conversations with others, including friends and family. There is a certain intimacy to speaking to others about our own ignorance, and I would be very happy if students come away with a willingness to have those conversations in the future.”

Written by Grace Prendergast, Class of 2023
Published November 16, 2020