Thursday, May 26, 2011

knowledge is power?

What do I know? And what does it bring me? Knowledge is power, we tell ourselves. Our personal power? Or a general shared power? Perhaps just as knowledge itself is shared... or is it?

What we know is filtered. What I know comes through me by my unique perception, my particular outlook, my previous experiences and understandings. One reason I have loved teaching high school English is because of this very fact. Students, especially younger 9th or 10th graders, think that there is something 'out there' called "knowledge." They all want it. They all feel they are competing with each other to master it. When we discuss novels -- and when we use them more broadly as a jumping off point for philosophical dialogue -- they begin to recognize that, while there are external commonalities and that we can share erudition, our knowledge is individualized. Knowledge is not that separate body of facts, truths, and realities, but our acquaintance or familiarity with those things. Thus, knowledge is a step removed from the state of a matter... a step that involves the percolation of what is abstracted from us through our being and the synthesis of that 'stuff' into what we already know, feel, are. My students and I spent a good 45 minutes yesterday discussing the part from Life of Pi where Pi talks about how people commonly assume happiness to equate with total freedom. From what he has observed about animals in a zoo, he disagrees with the previous premise. He finds that animals seek safety, security, protection, territorial and hierarchical order... and that it is within the context of these boundaries that they find "happiness." I would not attempt to argue that what animals feel is the same kind of happiness that humans feel, but we speculated on this question of happiness and lack of boundaries if applied to humans. The opinions of my students varied wildly and the discussion was lively and eye-opening. And so the first logical question is: what do we know?

It isn't just my students. It is quite common to correlate knowledge with what we learn in a school setting. Lloyd Dobler is a character (from the 1980's film Say Anything) who questions this connection. In two scenes from the movie, Lloyd addresses the question of what he wants to do in life -- career-wise. First, in responding to Diane's father he says:
I don't want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don't want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed... or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don't want to do that. So, ah... my father is in the army... he wants me to join, but I can't work for that corporation. So, what I've been doing lately is kick-boxing which is a new sport, but I think it's got a good future. As far as career longevity, I don't really know because, you know, you can't really tell.... You have to be great, but I can't really tell if I'm great until I've had a couple of pro fights. But I haven't been knocked down yet. I don't know. I can't figure it all out tonight, sir. I'm just gonna hang with your daughter.
What comes through from Lloyd's monologue -- besides his dangerously brutal honesty -- is that he is more aware of what he doesn't want and doesn't know than what he does. His unorthodox response and career plans shake up the family. The members of Diane's family sitting at the dinner table as Lloyd pontificates on his skepticism about where traditional education or career paths will take him appear highly uncomfortable. They squirm, they force smiles, they look away, they wait in agonizing silence for his commentary to end. Why are they so troubled? Is it his lack of 'knowing' what he wants to do? Or is it the implicit rejection of what he is supposed to want to do? "I am looking for a dare-to-be-great situation," Lloyd tells his guidance counselor in another scene. He may not know what exact path he wants to take, but he knows more about his own character and principles that most do. His guidance counselor pushes him, suggesting several potential careers post-high school, but Lloyd resists. His argument this time is widened to include what his fellow classmates are blind to in their determination to become a nurse, a lawyer, a guidance counselor:
How many of them really know what they want, though? I mean, a lot of them think they have to know, right? But inside they don't really know, so... I don't know... but I know that I don't know.
His knowledge consists of an awareness of what he does not know. Is this his power? Is this the reason he is considered by some to be "a new kind of folk hero, a high school student with no convictions but true love, certain only of his uncertainty"? (Sarah Hepola, "Being John Cusack," The Austin Chronicle, Feb. 24, 2003) If so, this 'certainty of uncertainty' takes us all the way back to the Greeks. Socrates' most famous quote is often translated as: 'All I know is that I know nothing...' but alternate translations have it as: 'I am wise insofar as what I don't know...' Wisdom, for Socrates, begins with questions... and continues thusly. Further, it is not the amount of 'knowledge' that one attains that matters, but the awareness that there is so much more out there... and that, of anything that we can ever know with certainty, we can perhaps only be sure that there will always continue to be the unknown out there. And so philosophy continues to rest on his credo: "The unexamined life is not worth living." And I repeat all the time: 'The more I know, the more I know what I don't know." Learning opens our eyes to new worlds and the worlds multiply endlessly. We become smaller. The knowledge grows and expands until all we are aware of is that it is impossible to 'conquer.'

Why then, do we call it a 'body' of knowledge? Does this relate back to the fact that our only 'truth' is that which is processed and embodied in our very being? We envision the knowledge that is 'out there' as somehow also corporeal, fleshy... a being that we encounter... a being that breathes into us and perhaps is always separate from us. We cannot fully understand or take in another body, another being. We can do our best to grasp its essential qualities, to listen to its words, to sit with it and hear its heartbeat. Just as with another person.

Jainism is an Indian religion based on becoming more and more conscious. Knowledge assumes a place of supreme importance because it embodies rationality and the path to liberation is understood to be built on just such rational conduct. And yet, the Jain religion sees this body of knowledge as possessing a soul. "There can be no knowledge without soul, and no soul without knowledge." It is in erasing our delusions and becoming more conscious that we attain higher 'soulfulness' in the context of this religion. Thereby, knowledge is again connected to awareness... not facts themselves.

To return to Socrates and 'the unexamined life.' As are so many of our famous soundbites, this too has been separated from its context. In 399 B.C., Socrates was put on trial for what he was teaching to the youth of Athens. Socrates had become a perceived threat to Athenian values and democracy. Many of his pupils were involved in revolts against the existing government. We like to view him as selfless and as a bringer of open and free thought. But the reality may have been that Socrates had little faith that Athenians could think for or rule themselves. This sat at the heart of what people critiqued about his teachings and, with all of the bloody uprisings that were occurring, he was finally charged as a criminal. In his defense (recorded in Plato's Apology), Socrates pleaded:
If I say that it is impossible for me to keep quiet because that means disobeying the gods, you will not believe me and will think I am being ironical. On the other hand, if I say that it is the greatest good for a man to discuss virtue every day and those other things about which you hear my conversing and testing myself and others, for the unexamined life is not worth living for me, you will believe me even less. What I say is true, gentlemen, but it is not easy to convince you.
And clearly he didn't as he was found guilty and drank the deadly hemlock poison.

Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates, 1787
While the official charges included introducing and encouraging youths to obey new deities, it seems that revolt and threat to democracy were the primary concerns of Athenians. But, as Socrates sets out in his final defense, what does it matter if what he says is 'true' when he will not be able to convince anyone of its truth. Was his knowledge a power?

Certainly it seems so. Power was the threat. I used to think that 'knowledge is power' implied that the more one knew, the more opportunities he had, the more paths opened to him in life. I feel differently now. There was an interesting article in the May 9 issue of New York magazine about the current value (or lack thereof) of a college degree. When we think of knowledge, it is this sort that we all probably tend to conjure. And most have accepted hook, line, and sinker the belief that a college degree is essential to making more money, having more opportunity, and, in general, doing 'better' in life. Well, apparently, there are many now who beg to differ. What kind of knowledge are students gaining at college? And is this knowledge related or transferable to the real world? The article refers to a book by two sociologists (from NYU and UVA) in which they reveal that half of college students don't take any courses which require over 40 pages of reading a week or more than 20 pages of writing. Well, they are not reading or writing. What are they doing then? What kind of knowledge are they attaining? One of the strongest critics of the current college degree, James Altucher, discloses that what he learned at Cornell was how to drink and talk to women. Important skills, of course, but perhaps not those that will lead young people into the promised land. (Another NY Times editorial on the topic.)

If universities have changed from "rigorous scholarly communities into corporate-minded youth resorts, where some presidents command salaries of more than $1 million and competition centers on out-doing one another in acquiring high-end amenities (duplex-apartment dormitories, $70 million gyms)..." ... then where would one go to find the sort of knowledge that these institutions used to (or are presumed to) provide? Or is it that the sort of corporate, competitive, and networking knowledge that students are gaining in college is the more critical sort in our contemporary society?

I don't know. You see, it always seems to return to this. If we return to Socrates, we understand knowledge as questioning that which is accepted as true or real. The Socratic method... fire question after question at the student. Similarly, in a more modern context, Foucault connects knowledge with power in a more nefarious way. Power can be obtained, according to Foucault, through the simple observation of others. Thus, power of this sort comes from knowledge as the 'eye', knowledge that comes by controlling the perspective. Big brother sort of knowledge... and power. Knowledge, in this context, is not the erudite collection of facts, but is rather an instrument of control. In this case, you don't have to 'know' much at all really. You only need to be in the right position behind the monitor in the central tower with a view all around the Panopticon.

I remain reassured by Lloyd. Perhaps it is his alternate belief in love, somehow overpowering his desire for knowledge or need to understand even the simplest of things -- where his life is going. He is a dreamer, an idealist amongst a sea of cynicism. According to a post on NPR's "In Character" blog, Lloyd embodies a particular sort of American faith. For he is "every person striving for dreams and holding faith against the odds. He is the American idea of hope. Undaunted, he made do with very little, remained true to his being, and shared the only thing he (or you and I) could give: love." Knowledge may be power. Knowledge may be a smokescreen. Knowledge may always be filtered and thereby distorted... and later, often manipulated. But our ability to say "I don't know" remains another kind of power. The power of self-awareness, of recognizing the infinite nature of the universe and our very small place within it, of accepting limitations... of perhaps even acknowledging the power of belief, faith, and love over the power of 'facts'. And thus the power of the mystery. "As we acquire more knowledge, things do not become more comprehensible, but more mysterious." (Albert Schweitzer)

Question knowledge. Question the question. Expand your perspective. Examine your own filtering devices. Explore the unexamined. Remain in the mystery. Find peace in that place of 'I don't know.'

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