Friday, October 3, 2008

In defense of knowledge

Like many of you, I was glued to my tv set yesterday from 9-11pm (OK, truthfully, 9-12am because I was watching all the post-debate spin and punditry as well as reading the live blogs and politicos on line).

And as a continuation of a post I wrote a few days ago titled cheekily "In defense of elitism" I want to clarify some of what I wrote in that post in light of the interesting discussion thread that follows and in light of last night's debate.

I never thought Sarah Palin would totally go off the rails. I thought it *might* happen, and I thought Joe Biden also *might* make one of his notorious gaffes. But the debate pretty much was what I thought it was going to be--Palin didn't repeat her "deer in the headlights" moments ala Couric interview and kept to the script that her handlers gave her (the woman was a communication studies major and had a job as an on-air newscaster--she knows how to look directly into a camera and punch certain sound bites). And Biden gave an impressive debate performance in terms of demonstrating that he had a plethora of facts and figures at his fingertips as well as deep and wide knowledge about domestic and foreign affairs (and a deep history in the Senate and familiarity with John McCain's record).

I know that everyone is saying that Palin did well because she staunched the bleeding from the CBS interviews and because she reassured the conservative base that she was firm on issues near and dear to the "right" (anti-gay marriage, smaller government, "winning" the war in Iraq). In other words, she showed up, didn't fall on her face, and stuck to talking points, sound bites, and campaign slogans and did fine, even if she didn't seem to answer questions directly or with any specificity. Biden, on the other hand, clearly demonstrated a grasp of the questions and the underlying issues AND provided clear answers that showed, again, his deep knowledge and ability to synthesize information from various quarters and on his feet in a debate format. And the pundits and America seem to agree since all the polls I've seen (including CNN) show Biden as the clear "winner" of last night's debate.

And here's what I'm left with. Biden had more knowledge. And an ability to synthesize that knowledge. And THAT is what I care about. Someone who is able to synthesize a wide as well as deep body of knowledge. A college education or law degree doesn't guarantee that someone is able to do this. But you know what? It doesn't hurt. In fact, I'd argue that a college degree, while not being a barometer for intelligence, is a barometer for diligence. For being able to follow a schedule of classes and set of requirements. And a higher degree, law, grad school, MBA, demonstrates an ability to take this training and thinking to another level.

And THAT is important. Knowledge. The celebration of knowledge. Not for it's own sake--not to make one superior--not to be celebrated as self-aggrandizement. But knowledge as power, particularly the power to make change in yourself, your community, and your world. THAT is important. Because knowledge IS power. We need to arm ourselves with as much knowledge as we can, about global climate change. About international issues that impact our domestic crises (the housing market, gas prices, rising cost of living--we are living in a global world--trade with foreign markets, particularly China is crucial to U.S. economic stability right now).

The issues we are facing in our nation, today, are complex and complicated. I want knowledge to be celebrate and lauded in our leaders as role models for our children and students--that we NEED people to be smart. We NEED people to want to pursue KNOWLEDGE--of all kinds (I need a new roof--and clearly I DO NOT have the knowledge to put on shingles and assess the state of my current roof, but I KNOW that there are people I can call for their expertise and KNOWLEDGE to replace my roof).

I wish we embraced knowledge more. Not just a rhetoric of "folksiness" or a series of facial gestures (all that winking that Sarah Palin did seemed bizarre to me). I would have been reassured if she had been able to give answers that reflected her synthesis of the information and her clear KNOWLEDGE of the subject and not just a parroting back of sound bites and campaign slogans. So for me, the clear winner was Biden and the clear ticket to support in November is Obambiden, because I want my leaders to be people who demonstrate KNOWLEDGE.


Jay said...

Hi, this is Spartakos. For some reason the OpenID wasn't working for me. :)

1.) Biden won the debate handily, and I was not especially impressed with Palin's performance. That said, Biden demonstrated something else...the ability to lie with a straight face. Some of the stuff he said is simply flat-out wrong.

2.) A college education is not always a barometer of diligence, depending. Again...Bush Jr., 2 prestigious universities. I myself graduated with honors from a decent school, and I freely admit I mostly slept my way through college. I enjoyed it immensely, but the experience itself did not teach me much. It required me to parrot information, memorize facts and details and regurgitate them on command, and write long pages of BS that mirror the current academic viewpoints. Clearly, our different experiences have given us different views of collegiate academics, and yours is just as valid as mine...but mine did not impress me with the quality of American academic achievement.

3.) The importance of knowledge. First, define knowledge for me. :)
I don't honestly have a good definition, but I can make a start. Knowledge is the understanding of a subject sufficient to take action on it, and involves perception, learning, association, and reasoning.
The difficulty lies in that so much of what makes up knowledge is subjective. Facts are concrete, but use of facts depends on which facts you accept as true (on what evidence), how you interpret those facts, and how willing to you are to accept facts that run counter to your own biases and/or deal honestly with the facts you have. Similarly, association of facts and reasoning based on them seem straightforward enough, but human beings are capable of taking the same information and coming to radically different conclusions about it.

I agree that knowledge is important, and do not believe in denigrating it. That said, things that are variously known as "wisdom" and "common sense" have their place as well. And my biggest concern in choosing a political candidate is not how much knowledge he has, but rather whether his knowledge and reasoning has led him to hold opinions similar to mine own, or at least opinions and positions that (when explained to me) I find reasonable and palatable.

We need to arm ourselves with as much knowledge as we can...

I agree...but when all is said and done, I suspect you and I will still have very different opinions on what our government should do with that knowledge, and I believe both will be valid. I simply don't believe there is any objective set of facts one can look at and say "this is clearly and obviously the right answer for our country".

I wish we embraced knowledge more. Not just a rhetoric of "folksiness" or a series of facial gestures

I agree. I have never meant to imply/convey that one should discard knowledge in favor of "likeability" or popularity. But I find that many politicians most often support knowledge only so far as it advances/supports their own views. Barack Obama taught Con Law, I'm informed...if that's true and he has knowledge of the Constitution, I don't know how he can take the stance he does on gun control and be intellectually honest with himself. I just don't understand it. That's just one example, but there are more (on economic issues, issues of size/scope of government, and more) where smart and educated people simply disagree on what knowledge tells us.

4.) is not enough to have knowledge, it must be used wisely and appropriately. Let us suppose that Barack Obama has an absolutely brilliant plan to turn around America's economy and make it all shiny and happy again. I will say (and some will say I'm crazy for saying so) that if this plan is outside the scope of what I consider the federal government's legitimate authority, I don't care if it will work. If it's not the government's job, I don't want them doing it. Period. Because I believe in a limited government, and if we bend the rules just because it works this time, that sets the precedent for them to be constantly bent.

And the fact is, I see most politicians these days wanting more and more for government to do things that I don't feel they should be meddling in...knowledge or no.

Evan Carden said...

As a general rule, I don't post when I've got nothing to add to the conversation, but I'm making an exception here. Thank you, I've been thinking about this a lot as we've been playing chicken with the economy and the presidency and this articulated a lot of things that have just been floating around in my head.

Also, to Jay/Spartaos' second point: Well, yes, you can pass classes if you memorize specific facts and then spit them back on the tests, but in my experience, professors actually prefer it if you engage your brain, don't parrot back their information, but go look up your own and argue your point. That only helps your grade. I'm reminded of the recent story of the guy who made it all the way through college and became a teacher without ever learning how to read ( you can do it, but really, what's the point?

And to his first point (wow and I thought I had nothing to say...) what makes you think he was lying? I've looked at the fact checking stuff and most of that appears to be mistakes along the lines of using the numbers from the wrong month, which were very similiar to Governor Palin's mistakes. I see no reason to assume either of them was lying as opposed to mistaken. I also see no reason to be particularly concerned about that. In a debate like this you expect to see errors of that sort.

Now, Governor Palin's decision to decide that answering questions is for sissies and hockey-moms just spout gibberish and talking points is rather more worrying.

A final point: I don't see the politicians (outside a creepy, creepy minority) as "wanting more and more for government to do things that I don't feel they should be meddling in...knowledge or no." I see a lot of politicians and a lot of Americans as wanting to return to an era of competent government. The massive expansion of government power over the last eight years needs to be rolled back, but just as importantly, the idea that departmental positions are attaboys for partisan hacks needs to go away. Now.

I realize that wasn't relevant to anything you said, but I appear to have lost the filter between my brain and my mouth...or fingers...or whatever. I'm going to stop now.

Anonymous said...

Always glad to see alternate points of view. :)

Re: education. I fully agree that it is better to actually engage your brain in college. That wasn't my point. My point is that neither college attendance nor good grades are any indicator of intellectual competency. Yes, obviously we want people who can think. But the fact that somebody attended college, got a degree, or scored certain grades are not necessarily a measure of how intelligent or diligent one is in attaining knowledge.

Re: lying. I will concede and even apologize...Biden could have been mistaken, not intentionally lying. The one place in particular that irked me was when Biden tried to blame the financial problem on John McCain and his call for "deregulation"...nothing in that statement was correct. Nothing.
And this is not a singling out of Biden; I feel both sides made statements that were simply wrong in order to paint their opponent as "the bad guy".

Re: Palin's folksy approach...I agree that she didn't actually debate, which is a disappointment. I already admitted I think she lost.

Re: Politicians wanting government intrusion. Dude, here we just have to disagree utterly. The amount of intrusion the federal government takes in the lives of American citizens, and in all aspects of life, has been steadily rising for decades (not just the last 8 years). And the disagreement isn't about the level of government power, just what that power should be.
You want competence in government? Me too. But I don't see a lot of politicians wanting that. Both big political machines are more concerned with preservation of their own influence than putting anybody in there who's actually going to do something their constituents want...or limiting their own power, which is what really needs to happen.

Evan Carden said...

I think we're just going to have to agree to disagree on the role of government. The expansions in the past eight years are dangerous and, to my mind simply wrong. The expansions of the previous century, from social security and medicare to a professional, standing army...

Were necessary and worked out well. Slippery slope sure, but if your vigilant you can climb up or stay put rather than sliding down.

Anonymous said...

We can certainly agree to disagree. Peace be with you.

I don't disagree that the last 8 years have produced some dangerous expansions of government power (not all in the executive, for that matter). I just disagree that the last 8 years have been more dangerous than the previous 50-60.

I mildly suggest that when government has been readily expanding for decades, and that expansion has not been seriously checked or opposed, it's only natural that it will continue to do so and expect no opposition.
As to the necessity of past government expansions...I refer you to the words of William Pitt (the younger).

Good day, sir.

Jennifer said...

Thanks for such a lively discussion Jay/Sparatkos & Evan--I am sorry I am chiming in so late--the semester has been hectic to say the least, and I am trying to be a responsible professor.

And I suppose I will start there. Perhaps I am too idealistic. Or too much of a "hard ass"--which is what my students recently discovered on the recent batch of papers they were handed back and the 1:1 mandatory student conferences I've been having with them this past week, but I really believe that if you are in my class, you are here to learn and to work hard. And if you aren't interested in doing either one, you should drop my class. I'm very clear about that from the first day and throughout the semester.

But I truly believe that students are in college to learn. I mean, I know they may not have that as their end goal or that may not be what they want to hear--but some part of them WANTS knowledge. And ALL of them want a college degree as a demonstration of knowledge and expertise--whether it's knowledge for knowledge's sake or simply a way to jump through another hurdle on the way to a job/career/grad school.

So the first thing I'd say to Spartakos, is that I think you have sold yourself short. I, obviously, have no idea what kind of student you were and must take you, somewhat, at your word when you say that you slept your way through college.

But the truth is, you got a college degree and therefore you HAD to have learned something. Even if it was learning how to work the system. You had to have shown up to 75% of your classes and done well enough to graduate with at least a 2.5 (in your major--that's probably the lowest min. to graduate at any school--I used to work Orientation staff at my under grad alma mater so I know UCSB's gen ed and English major requirements inside and out).

And then things seeped in through osmosis, I'm sure. Tidbits said in lecture or discussion that you may not have paid much attention to at the time but years later may have creeped up on you, either in a trivia pursuit sort of way (recognizing the difference between cumulus or cirrus clouds) or in a much deeper sense (understanding the history of U.S. government expansion throughout the 20th century).

I agree that knowledge is not a simple or sole barometer for leadership, intelligence, integrity, diligence, morality, or management. But I think that espousing a desire for knowledge, an intellectual curiosity, is a trait that has much merit and can be translatable to an open mind and willingness to hear different sides or take an interest in a variety of topics or to find answers to puzzling questions--all of which are traits I would like to see in a presidential candidate let alone the President of the United States.

Finally, I am a liberal progressive and believe not necessarily in "big government" but in government intervention to protect the weakest members of our society--I believe that government has a responsibility to its citizens--all its citizens--not just those that have the most money and influence and power but those who are voiceless and stricken. So children, disabled, and poverty stricken people--as well as veterans, are people we need to take care of and pay attention to in our society. And certainly we needed new deal policies during the great depression, we needed the 19th amendment allowing women to vote and we needed civil rights legislation to protect racial minorities.

But perhaps what we really need is to move away from a language of civil rights to one of human rights--to move away from an additive approach as to who gets to count as a fully-fledged citizen of the U.S. to one that recognizes the inalienable rights of all people, regardless of ability, age, race, gender, sexuality, or income.

Anonymous said...

Re: college...lots of things

1.) I don't share your opinion that students are (by and large) in college to learn. That does NOT (by any means) indicate that I am right and you are may well be right. I just didn't see much evidence of it. Most of the students I interacted with were about partying/having fun, making grades (which can be entirely unrelated to learning), and/or getting a diploma in order to get a job (again...can be unrelated to learning). I fully admit my priveleged status, which is such that it was expected that I would go to college, and the same is true of most of the people I went to high school with. But I think a lot of them were in my same boat...not in college to learn anything in particular, or because they even knew what they wanted to do, but because it was expected of them (and in some cases, because someone else--parents and/or Uncle Sam--was paying the bill).

2.) I didn't really have to learn anything to get my degree. All I had to do was earn credit hours, and in some cases to earn them I did not even need to show up to the class. I did have to make grades, which I did pretty well (I graduated with honors, actually...cumulative avg. was 3.6, IIRC). But a lot of the classes only required me to demonstrate knowledge that I possessed before coming to the school, and others only required me to regurgitate the kind of things the professors wanted to hear (in some, I might even cynically say that if I had written more of what I honestly felt, I would not have gotten as good a grade). Since my degree was English Lit, a fair bit of it was creative writing (fiction/poetry/critical), and while it involved creativity and some effort on my part, it did not involve a great deal of "learning" (which I define as acquiring new skills/information) as much as application of knowledge/skills I already had.

3.) I don't mean to say I learned absolutely nothing at college...for instance, I did learn some HTML and web design, which I found fun and interesting. Likewise, I was exposed to some new books and so forth. But the learning I acquired did not require any real effort or diligence on my part, and 100% of what I learned was due to what I wanted to learn, not to what the college was necessarily trying to teach me (if that made any sense). Part of this is that I am (as I rather immodestly said earlier) pretty smart. But a part of it is simply that acquiring a liberal arts degree is really quite easy for anyone who paid attention in high school, doesn't mind reading, and can understand what a professor wants/expects.

4.) I shared my experiences solely to answer something you proposed: "I'd argue that a college degree, while not being a barometer for intelligence, is a barometer for diligence." I think that while my own experience is not universal, neither is it unique; hence, a college degree is not necessarily a barometer of anything worthwhile. I've known some thoroughly worthless individuals who nonetheless attended college and collected their sheepskins.

Re: desirable traits. I will fully agree that the traits you list are ones I would also find desirable in a presidential candidate...though not to the point that they outweigh other important traits, such as honesty, adherence to the Constitution, and so on and so forth.

Re: you own politics. Let's see...

1.) I agree that government has the same obligations to all of its citizens...I just don't think those obligations are very great.

2.) I agree with government intervention to protect weak members of our society, but only to the extent that they are protected from violation of their rights. Not protection from anything bad that might happen to them. Freedom has its up-sides and its down-sides...among the downsides are the freedoms to fail as well as succeed, to lose wealth as well as acquire it, to bear the negative consequences of their actions as well as the positive, and in some cases to deal with life's visscitudes on one's own. Freedom is scary, and I fear that most people would rather have security than freedom. But I still think freedom is the better deal in the long run.

3.) I wholeheartedly agree that we need to return to the concept of human rights...that's what our Constitution (particularly the first 10 amendments) was all about. Of course, I suspect we might disagree on what "human rights" entails. :)