Knowledge and Power. (11/05/2001)

A well-meaning person approached me the other day at a workshop meant to be an orientation for middle school substitute teachers in a decaying southern urban environment desperately in need of some useful strategy to prevent the State from seizing control of the local school board's responsibility to educated the city's children. Total State control of the public school system is the next, even inevitable, step contemplated in reversing the decline, evident here for many years, in how well or how badly the children of the city learn basic skills in language arts and mathematics in the public schools from year to year. To characterize the accomplishments of teachers and students here as dismal (the city ranks last in the State while the State ranks last in the nation in accountability testing at all grade levels), is to be only as kind as possible. The situation is much worse than just dismal. The typical 8th grade student here reads at a 3rd grade level and cannot perform even simple addition and subtraction operations in math. Most have never been exposed to concepts like multiplication and division. Algebra and Geometry are languages spoken on Mars and Jupiter respectively according to what anyone living around here knows. In short, the situation can be catastrophic if you happen to be born here and cannot go elsewhere for your K-1 through K-12 education.

Anyway, this person who approached me was part of the "team" conducting the orientation for substitute teachers, and the system needed six administrators to get the job done, which might explain what the problem is in a top-heavy school district that pays administrators more than double what it pays actual classroom teachers, and this person said, as a kind of mantra for his/her presentation, that "Knowledge is Power." He/she did not actually say that but it was the first sentence on an overhead projector from the transparency he/she used to work through his/her presentation. Technology was literally running rampant in the meeting hall that morning. Turns out that the phrase, "Knowledge is Power," is a kind of slogan for the entire school district because it appeared everywhere during the meeting. My first question was: what does this person know that I do not that accounts for the fact that he/she is an administrator in a school district in which I am seeking a job as a substitute teacher? Clearly, he/she has more power than I can hope to exercise if I am hired to be a substitute teacher and, therefore, must have more knowledge than I do about any number of relevant subjects. Since power is inherently hierarchical in its nature, and since the amount and kind of knowledge a person has determines the level of power he/she exercises, if the phrase "knowledge is power" actually means what it says, then the amount of power a person accumulates and exercises in the world must be proportional to the amount of knowledge that person has acquired and possesses.

While it serves no useful purpose to pursue the issue of relative amounts of knowledge versus power this or that individual has and exercises, in any specific context, mine versus his/hers, for instance, it is nevertheless inescapably obvious that in many, even most, circumstances wide disparities between one thing and the other can usually be found and documented. In this specific instance, the person in question also distributed a current copy (2000-2001) of the school district's Language Arts curriculum guide for 6th through 8th grades in the area's middle schools. Under the general heading "Genres," which is one of seven standards of concentration students are expected to "master," the following objective is given top or initial priority: "The learner will be able to analyze a selection (e.g., short story, poem, biography, essay, etc.) to examine cultural diversity." My problem with this statement is the implication expressed in the context, if not explicitly, that genre has some inherent connection to issues involving cultural diversity, or that genre can, or should, be used, in and of itself, as a means to get at the end of examining issues related to ethnic or national or racial origins, to get to the activity of discussing cultural similarities and differences. What this bizarre coupling must invite, since genre is a "list" of characteristics that are used to distinguish between one formal literary structure (poem) and another (short story), where the differences are quantified and qualified to emphasize how one thing is this and the other thing is that in the most rigid application of standards possible to separate one from the other, is a similar comparison, also based on essential "characteristics," even in highly formalized structures, between one culture and another as if cultural differences were just as quantifiable and qualifiable as are the distinctions that divide poetry from prose, poem from short story. The point here is that using a list of characteristic to divide and separate and rank genres, according to value or worth, is perfectly legitimate, if not benign and harmless; whereas, even the implication that the same can be done to rank people of different ethnic or racial or cultural backgrounds is never harmless and most often turns out to be deadly.

Teaching children, even if only by implication, that speech and language genres are somehow inherently connected to a person's cultural origin, to "cultural diversity" itself, seems to be a dangerous reinforcement of stereotypical characteristics that inevitably lead to every kind of racial and ethnic profiling and outright discrimination based on those profiles. Inherent in this same kind of thinking is the idea that people of certain racial or ethnic backgrounds are capable of producing or assimilating only certain kinds of literary work. If genre is connected to culture, then it is only a small step to asserting that certain kinds of people are capable of crafting only certain kinds of literary production, are capable of comprehending only certain kinds of written material. Since poems are thought to be more difficult to write than short stories, since poetry is more difficult to read and comprehend than prose, one can argue that certain ethnic groups are more likely to produce prose than they are to write poetry, that they are inherently better equipped intellectually to read prose than they are to comprehend poetry. When a child fails to perform adequately on a State mandated accountability text in a decaying urban environment, educators can excuse themselves by pointing to the "natural" proclivities associated with a confusion over what is perceived as genetic as opposed to what might only be generic, so to speak.

Whether that confusion is the actual source of this fuzzy thinking or not, the fact remains that one element of bad philosophy often leads to another; that is, in an environment that consistently fails to produce adequate learning in its students one should not be surprised to find a slogan used as a mantra which asserts that "knowledge is power." The problem with this idea is that nothing could be further from the truth. Knowledge and Power, in fact, have virtually nothing to do with each other; one cannot be defined in terms of the other; and there is no sense at all in the assertion that they are equivalent to each other. Power, for instance, cannot be defined at all without recourse to hierarchical structure. In fact, if hierarchy were removed from consideration altogether in this or that context, power itself would vanish along with it. Knowledge, on the other hand, while one might be able to say that this or that individual has more or less of it than someone else, and use that fact to create a semblance of hierarchical structure, ranking the person with more higher than the one with less, knowledge, in and of itself, does not depend on this or that state of rank for its existence. Knowledge of a lesser kind does not cease being knowledge simply because someone values a different kind more highly. Power of a lesser kind, however, always assumes weakness as its mantle instead.

People who claim that "knowledge is power" are mostly concerned with justifying their use of naked aggression when they exercise it against those who have none at all or possess so little of it that they are essentially defenseless against its use. Aggression is no virtue when it is used against the powerless but always seems less offensive when its use is justified by knowledge. I have knowledge, which is the source of my power, and when I use it against you by depriving you of what you deserve, I cannot be blamed for my naked aggression because I know what is best for all concerned. You, on the other hand, know nothing at all. I know this is true because you do not have the power to resist my will.

Power is power. Knowledge is knowledge. They are not equivalent. One does not bestow or confer the other. People who mask their exercise of one by claiming to possess the other are simply dangerous to the well-being of the common good. A final question: if power and knowledge were truly interchangeable, one the same as the other, would George W. Bush be President?

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