075aInformation is light,” announces the bronze plaque set into the sidewalk at my feet. Then it continues: “Information in itself, about anything, is light.” The source is cited down in the corner: Tom Stoppard, from Night and Day, 1978.

Another plaque states: “I want everybody to be smart. As smart as they can be. A world of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in.” – Garson Kanin, Born Yesterday, 1946.

The plaques are part of the Library Walk, and set into the East 41st Street approach to the New York Public Library. Looking mostly upward in the vertical city, I nearly missed them. Along with a number of others, they have given me both introspective and instructional pause.

Both of these statements were prescient counsel for our culture, our country. Nonetheless, we seem to have slid into a period of willful, noisy ignorance, of petulant dismissal both of “facts” —information and conclusions which we have long mutually accepted as reliable—and the orderly ways in which we determine them. Science, through no fault of its own or its practitioners, has among many of our fellow travelers become suspect. Knowledge itself, whether scholarly or just widely experiential, now earns the lazy, dismissive epithet “elitist” and even “conspiracy”. We find verifiable knowledge dismissed out of hand in favor of casual and convenient opinion. Opinion unsorted, if you will, the chaff still among the grain.

Worse yet, there has become a prejudice among many of us against information that doesn’t comport with our “beliefs”. Yes, the quotation marks are on purpose, for often such assertions have the only the shallowest of roots. I remember a bumper sticker that read, “Just because you think it doesn’t mean it’s true.” (Yes, one must accept wisdom where one finds it.) I would posit another: “Just because you think it doesn’t mean God ordains it.”   It seems to me that both reason and faith require considerably more humility and more effort than that.

Far too many of us today, including many who have every reason to know better, noisily dismiss information, analysis and confirmation as irrelevant. Be it global warming and its causes, evolution or creationism (who said they have to be mutually exclusive?) or the role of our common government, rational, studious thought has become suspect. For some, the very incompleteness of their “information” is a matter of boastful pride. Reflexive retort is coming to characterize us more than reflective discussion. And for some—and there is no surprise here—misinformation has a motive more valuable than the truth.

I would like to think this is a cyclical or generational phenomenon, one that will soon right itself. But history does not happen absent human effort–or lack thereof. We would therefore do well to remember the sidewalk wisdom of Mssrs. Stoppard and Kanin, and redouble our efforts toward curious inquiry, deliberation, and critical thought.

So let there be light. A world of ignorant people is indeed far too dangerous to live in.

J. S. Anderson

Note: The plaques described above are part of the Library Walk, “a celebration of the world’s greatest literature,” sculpted by Gregg Lefevre and sponsored by the Grand Central Partnership and the New York Public Library. They were installed in 1998.


The Blackbird and Hemingway, July16, 2014, The Editorial Department.

Some Books are to be Chewed, August 12, 2014, Lucky Bat Books.

Photo by J. S. Anderson. Detail, Library Walk, New York City



  • I emphatically agree. For all that I love the easy access to information afforded us by the digital age, I mourn the loss of the time it used to take to find answers to questions. Not only did the longer span of time itself help us to process and integrate knowledge, but the fact that we had to dig a little to get to what we needed meant we were exposed to unrelated BUT STILL USEFUL knowledge on the way.

    Now when we want to know something, we google it and immediately get a sterile, isolated “answer” (which may in fact be nothing more than opinion). Great for finding song lyrics or the square root of 97, but not so great for actually learning anything.

    I believe this relates to your post on “aloneliness.” The people I know who enjoy alone time are also more prone to taking a while to think about things, and to appreciate the getting of knowledge for its own sake.

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