During the early 70s, James Moffett—distinguished author of Teaching the Universe of Discourse, Active Voice, Coming on Center, and other books devoted to education and to educational reform—developed a progressive textbook series for schools in West Virginia, a series that in 1974 became involved in a knock-down-drag-out censorship battle. In 1988, Moffett wrote a book about this galvanizing experience: Storm in the Mountains: A Case Study of Censorship, Conflict, and Consciousness. It is still a timely and informative read, as Moffett traces the history of the conflict, delves deep into the psychology of those who so violently objected to the textbooks, and along the way takes a close look at his own assumptions and biases.
But I think of the book today because of its focus on what he sees as one of the roots of the key problem in West Virginia, which he identifies as agnosis. From ancient Greek, “a” (against) and “gnosis” (knowledge), agnosis refers to culturally constructed or willful ignorance, what Moffett calls the will NOT to know. It seems to me that today, the U.S. is awash in agnosis, as citizens resolutely refuse to accept facts (that President Obama was born in the United States, for example) and rather believe what is “culturally constructed” for them by the loudest and most headline-seeking media. Agnosis seems to be at the heart of Donald Trump’s success, as millions take part in a mass willful and willed ignorance. I see agnosis at work in other campaigns as well, though none as startling and dangerous as in the case of Trump.
In such a time, it is more imperative than ever that teachers of writing engage our students in understanding agnosis, finding and tracking it in ourselves as well as others, analyzing its powers, and, most of all, looking for ways to address the fears that often underlie agnosis and to provide concrete alternatives to it. Which is all to say, we need to teach students to practice rhetorical thinking, and to do so consciously and systematically.