Politics and Knowledge

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I have been thinking a lot these days about politics and knowledge, the way knowledge or being knowledgeable gets defined in the political moment—in the moment, but affected by a thick web of long-standing American cultural conflicts.

One immediate example comes from the 2008 presidential election and concerns the subtle attempt by John McCain’s campaign to diminish Barack Obama’s education at Harvard Law School. The particularly American way this diminishment was executed reveals a lot about our country and its complicated relationship with knowledge gained through formal education. It’s an issue that we, as educators, need to ponder.

I certainly understand suspicions about advanced education. School knowledge can be abstract, removed from on-the-ground reality. It can be exclusionary. It can be used to great harm—after all, one of the documentaries on Enron is subtitled “The Smartest Guys in the Room.” Growing up in a poor family, I experienced and looked on as others suffered indignities from professional people. And, to this day, I feel uncomfortable in some academic settings: the speech, the posturing, the retreat into pedantry.

One obvious cultural tension in play around Mr. Obama’s Harvard degree is that of rural America vs. the city, or the heartland vs. the East Coast. This was one of Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s trump cards. This rural vs. urban conflict has a long history in the United States; it vibrates throughout 19th- and 20th-century American fiction and popular culture. Consider the standard storylines. Country boy or girl escapes the closed-mindedness and constraints of the small town to find cosmopolitan liberation in the city—or finds in the city amorality, alienation, and sometimes death. (Think Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie.) Flowing through these storylines is condescension and ridicule directed toward country life or, conversely, moralizing and harsh judgment about the city and its institutions ... like Ivy League universities.

Related to this cultural conflict is the age-old tension between practical life, experience, and common sense, on the one side, and schooling, book learning, and intellectual pursuits, on the other. The historian Richard Hofstadter’s classic Anti-Intellectualism in American Life chronicles this antagonism, and the gradual ascendance of school-based expertise in the nation’s culture. But the contrary position still holds strong. My cousin is fond of repeating an old saying, “It took a guy with a college degree to screw this up and a guy with a high school degree to fix it.”

Resonant with both these tensions are the conflicts of social class, for level and kind of education (and the kind of work that education makes possible) is a significant class marker. My cousin’s comment cuts to the core here: a valuing of hands-on knowledge over schoolhouse knowledge. And the counterforce is all too familiar, the bias against those who work with their hands as somehow ignorant and illiterate—a bias that goes back to the early days of the Republic.

The kinds of entertainment one chooses; one’s tastes, from liquor to wall hangings; one’s speech patterns and conversational style all filter in and out of these conflicts—and for all involved are a rich source of lampoon and criticism. It’s pretty deadly when Barack Obama’s answers to questions are labeled “professorial.” The implication is that he’s aloof, an elitist, out of touch with the common Joe.

In the heat of the political moment, these tensions gain rhetorical power, but a more complex social reality rests underneath them.

There has always been interplay between rural and urban, East Coast and heartland. Easterners have traveled west and settled, and sons and daughters of the heartland have traveled east to study, yet returned home to teach, or practice law or medicine, or set up shop. As land-grant colleges emerged after the passage of the Morrill Act in 1862, they brought both faculty and “Eastern” (not to mention European) traditions westward. Progressive political and labor movements emerged in both urban and rural landscapes, and in some cases influenced each other. And Shakespeare was as popular on the frontier as in the city.

As for the “working class,” it’s hard to define in the United States, and there is a good deal of confusion about who is working-class and who is not. Working-class folk do not at all have a monolithic culture. There are, in fact, all sorts of working classes, different by region, race and ethnicity, how recently they immigrated to this country, and so on. Beliefs, values, and tastes vary widely. My Uncle Frank, a railroad machinist, would quote Longfellow in his letters.

To be sure, there is variation in the embrace of education—and gender and generation play in here—but many working-class families would consider it a dream come true to see their children take the path that led Barack Obama to Harvard. I think about my Uncle Joe, a guy with a 9th grade education who was proud that his work at General Motors enabled him to send all three of his kids to college.

Among many of the working-class people I grew up with, there is a deep respect for knowledge and know-how, for expertise. There’s no faking it with machinery, or in building a cabinet, or in handling a lunch-hour rush in a restaurant. And when professional help is needed, it’s resources, not inclination, that keep the people I know from the Cleveland Clinic or the Ivy League-trained lawyer.

I don’t want to deny the tensions around hands-on vs. school knowledge, but in my experience, school knowledge, especially as we move toward more-complex technologies, is respected and desired by working people. The problem is more in the bearing of the person who embodies that knowledge. Did formal education bring with it condescension, arrogance, aloofness?

The conservative attack on knowledge over the last eight years exploits such condescension, but it is not grounded on principle, such as an affirmation of deep experiential knowledge as a hedge against bookishness.

Rather, we’ve had the substitution of political loyalty for expertise, feeling for rationality, and the cherry-picking of facts for analysis of evidence. All this has been done to maintain power, but, ironically, it runs contrary to fundamental conservative beliefs that elevate traditional education, scientific inquiry, and rationality over feeling. Increasing numbers of people within the conservative fold are deeply worried about this strain of anti-intellectualism.

It’s time to reclaim for politics the value of knowledge, to step into our cultural tangles and find common cognitive ground. Think of what it would mean for our civic life to affirm the bedrock value of knowledge—many kinds of knowledge, machinist’s to pediatrician’s—to affirm the wide range of ways people gain and apply knowledge, solve problems, think their way through their daily lives.

Vol. 28, Issue 16, Page 33

Published in Print: January 7, 2009, as Politics and Knowledge
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