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Knowledge is Power...or Not
by Nathanael Schildbach

knowledge is power
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“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.” ~ Paulo Freire

Pet peeves. Things that drive us nuts. These are all topics for a therapy session. Maybe not the biggest of issues for anyone, but aren’t the pettiest things that bother us so telling about our personalities? Doesn’t understanding them help us to better understand ourselves? “Knowledge is power.” This is one of my pet peeves.

It probably seems ridiculous to most that I’d find this so irritating, like it was some horrid statement out of Mein Kampf, but it drives me nuts. I’ve given myself time to think about it, to see if I’m onto something here or just going off the deep end and the more I’ve pondered it, the more it’s bothered me.

Doing this reflective process, I’ve increased my own knowledge of the quote. Who thought that “Knowledge is power” was a good statement, a sound proclamation? Well, Sir Francis Bacon did for one, since he’s credited with saying it. I’ve come across it quoted as “Knowledge is power” and then again as “For knowledge, too, is itself a power” and even found this second version’s Latin translation.

So, am I feeling more powerful with this new knowledge? I now know more about this quote, but not even the Latin translation has helped me in anyway, let alone bestowed powers upon me. Or even provided me with a snazzy super hero type outfit – I’d settle for that.

In all fairness to Sir Frank, what bothers me about the quote has almost nothing to do with him or his thoughts on it. What bothers me about it is how it is used today. I’ve heard this statement bandied about during my lifetime to justify any number of things to be learned, comprehended, memorized, or otherwise stuck inside a person’s head. It assumes that there is just some intrinsic value in knowing, for example, the Latin translation of “For knowledge, too, is itself a power.” It assumes that with this knowledge I can go forth and have a better life or make the world safe for democracy or however it is that it is empowering me.

On the micro level, I’ve seen this lobbed at students by many a teacher when the student dared ask why they needed to know whatever it was they were learning. Duh, silly student: Knowledge is power. It’s what you take right after your multivitamin, remember? In my experience, said teacher just has no good answer to that question for many reasons including:

  • Whatever it is you’re learning has no intrinsic value and they can’t think of why you would ever need to know it.
  • They are required to teach it because a bureaucrat higher up the food chain requires them to, despite the fact they see no point in learning it.
  • You only need to learn it because you will be tested on it later (for an explanation, see above).

On the macro level, it covertly asserts that this same banking of information that is done in schools is not just keeping kids busy, and not just getting them ready for jobs or the next level of education, but it is in fact truly empowering people. It asserts that this process of acquiring knowledge is somehow strengthening people and making them effective and in control. Again, it’s a multivitamin for the brain. And a flossing too.

But it isn’t. In fact, in many ways, capturing and storing information, whether dictated by someone else or freely chosen by yourself, really doesn’t do you one darn bit of good. I’m not saying that ignorance is where it’s at. But knowledge isn’t an end unto itself. It’s what you do with knowledge that holds the power.

Here’s a practical example to explain what I’m talking about. I work at a university. There are tons of knowledge piled up all over campus and leaking out of people’s heads and, well trust me, it’s all over the place. So you’d think that all these people would be really effective at doing stuff, since the equation states that knowledge is power, right? These people would be powerful. But that’s hardly the case. It’s more like an inverse relationship from my experience. Plenty of people know stuff, but don’t know what to do with it. There are all of these ornate, pretty little collections of knowledge and information arranged and sitting on a shelf, but nary an x-ray vision or lasso of truth to be found.

True power (or empowerment) would come from taking the knowledge you have acquired and applying it. A student could, for example, increase their knowledge of standardized testing and how that impacts the curricula they are subjected to. They could learn more about the link (or lack thereof) between test results and actual learning impacts. They could learn about the history of psychometronics and biases in test construction. They could learn about the economics of the standardized testing industry and who stands to profit from their implementation. Then they could use this knowledge to advocate for change.

That is why you won’t see this learning tool implemented anytime soon.

The free and unfettered application of knowledge is unpredictable and dangerous. You’ll see the U.S. Department of Education pass out a Kalashnikov and a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book to every kid in America before you see them design a curriculum that calls for children to ask real questions about the reality they live in and suggest changes to it.

That gets back to why this statement bothers me. It’s a half truth, wielded by those who have no real desire to empower anybody but who wish to stifle any empowering urge that might come over a child, and it is used as such.

“Teacher, why do I have to memorize all the dates and locations of the U.S. Revolutionary War battles?”

“And well you should ask, inquisitive Suzie; it’s because knowledge is power.”

“But I don’t understand why all this happened, why there was a war….”

“Sure Suzie, but you’re forgetting just how yummy and good it is to have these facts memorized in your head, because knowledge is power.”

“Yeah, I get that, and I remember when the Battle of Monmouth happened and how it was supposed to all be about freedom, but I don’t get why, in the end, only these land owning, white males got to vote. I mean, what about all the people who fought in it?”

“Suzie. Dear Suzie. I’ve explained already. Knowledge is power.”

“Okay, okay. But what about Shay’s Rebellion, how come we don’t cover that so much, isn’t it important too….”

Nathanael Schildbach lives and learns in western Massachusetts with his wife, three sons, dog, cat and some racing pigeons.

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