What according to William Hazlitt is the "ignorance of the learned"?

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teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Hazlitt argues quite forcefully, using overstatement to pound home his point, that formal education leads to stupidity and ignorance. As he puts it:

Can we wonder at the languor and lassitude which is thus produced by a life of learned sloth and ignorance?

Book learning is not a substitute for experience, he argues. To really gain knowledge, a person needs to get out and engage in life, not just read about it. Women and the uneducated often have more common sense than the university educated because they have had to meet the day-to-day demands of life head on. 

Hazlitt refers specifically to the kind of classical education offered to middle and upper class boys and young men of his period, who would spend years learning subjects like Latin and Greek. This, he argued, was impractical and a waste of time. And even subjects like arithmetic and geography were, he contended, taught in the worst possible way:

Memory (and that of the lowest kind) is the chief faculty called into play in conning over and repeating lessons by rote in grammar, in languages, in geography, arithmetic, etc.

Rote learning and memorization are unnatural and "what passes for stupidity is much oftener a want of interest" in irrelevant subjects. 

Instead of spending time on rote memorization and irrelevant topics, young men would get a better education going out into the world, laboring and experiencing life directly so that they could learn to think for themselves. Hazlitt wrote this essay in 1822, and over time formal education has shifted towards an emphasis on more practical knowledge and developing critical thinking skills. 


scarletpimpernel eNotes educator| Certified Educator

William Hazlitt, known for his biting satirical essays, attacks formal education in "On the Ignorance of the Learned." This essay in particular demonstrates that Hazlitt was a little before his time in regards to his logic about education and practical knowledge.  He writes that those who have "learned" from books and formal schools do not possess true knowledge.  They might be described as "learned" men, but in Hazlitt's opinion,

"the knowledge of that which is before us, or about us, which appeals to our experience, passions, and pursuits, to the bosom and businesses of men, is not learning."

Rather, knowledge is common sense, intuition, and what we refer to as street smarts.  Because Hazlitt believes that the learned spend too much time reading other people's opinions instead of getting out into the real world of business, he writes that they are ignorant in the following areas.

1. Imagination--they use books to think for them instead of using their own imagination.

2.  Morality--instead of observing what seems to be right and wrong in the real world, they read about others' views of morality.  Hazlitt cites Shakespeare as an example of someone who used his own observations about vice and virtue to formulate personal morality.

3.  Physical Fitness--Hazlitt even stresses that the learned look at sculptures and paintings and read about the human form and fitness but don't use their own bodies to run, walk, or work with their hands.

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