To What Extent Does Knowledge Confer Privilege?

An Essay I wrote for TOK Last Year. 

In certain circles, knowledge is almost a byword for privilege. The words, “Oxford” or “Cambridge” for example, will bring to mind in most those people who have large estates and can trace their lineage back to Charlemagne. Although knowledge usually confers privilege, it doesn’t do so necessarily and the knowledge possessed by an individual affords different privileges in different cultures.

First, let us examine this statement with inductive reasoning. As everyone knows, knowledge is power. Power by definition is limited to a select few people, the privileged and the elite. The idiom, “knowledge is power” seems however to be a simple idiom, commonly spouted dime-a-dozen fantasy novels. Despite its cliché nature, it is actually true, and a proof was first proposed over 140 years ago by James Maxwell. Maxwell postulated thusly:

Imagine a door between two rooms. Within the two rooms, there is gas. A demon controls the door between the two rooms, and the demon will only allow fast moving particles to move into one room and slow moving particles to move into the other room. Eventually, all the fast particles will be in one room, and all the slow moving particles will be in another room. The system has then lost all entropy, yet expended no energy.

This is of course, impossible. It is in violation of the second law of thermodynamics which states that the entropy of an isolated system never decreases. A solution to this problem was proposed (and then proved eight decades later) whereby the demon would have to expend energy measuring the speed of the molecules. Energy is expended and when the speed of the molecule is measure, information is created and the second law of thermodynamics holds true. This established the idea that information (knowledge) could be converted to energy, and power is simply energy over time. Therefore, knowledge is power and as power confers privilege, the title knowledge claim holds true.

The above, “proof” whilst technically validating the knowledge claim, takes a somewhat facetious approach to doing so. A much better example comes from dynastic China. For most of it’s history, China was ruled by Emperors, but the administrators were the Shìdàfū. These were educated men (always men) who had to pass rigorous exams to be allowed into the scholarly gentry of the nation. Most of these people would go back to their home villages and towns to assume leadership positions, but some (the one percent of the one percent, to draw a modern parallel) went on the advice the Emperor as  part of his, “cabinet.” Although power in ancient China technically lay absolutely with the Emperor, part of Chinese lore stated that the Emperor only ruled as long as he held the Mandate of Heaven, the divine right to rule. The Mandate of Heaven dictated that Emperors were only allowed to rule by heaven for as long as they were a good Emperor, obeying the rules of Heaven. This idea was not only created by scholars (during the Zhou dynasty) but also it was scholars who studied and interpreted Confucian texts, which state that one of the ways to be a good Emperor was to adhere to the Confucian texts which were, in essence, controlled by the scholars.

In the everyday sense outside of academia, knowledge does not necessarily confer privilege. It is impossible to go through life without amassing a certain amount of knowledge. There are many places in the world which sadly lack formal education, yet these places are not lacking in knowledge, their knowledge is simply of a different kind. In his TED Talk, anthropologist Dr. Wade Davis describes the Wayfinders of Polynesia. Polynesians are not privileged in today’s society, starting with the European colonisation of Oceania, they have had their homelands and livelihoods taken away and yet they have knowledge which would blow a European’s. Although their societies never invented maps, they can navigate between Polynesia’s 1,000 islands with ease. They use the stars and patterns to plot a route, and can use the patterns made by waves lapping against the hull of their simple boats to detect islands many miles beyond the horizon. It is worth noting, however, that those who possess such navigational knowledge, whilst perhaps not privileged in the west, will have privileges within their own society.

It is a mistake to assume that knowledge does not confer privilege, as those who have knowledge both literally and figuratively possess more power than those without it, however this is not necessarily so. The value given to knowledge varies across different cultures, and the privilege it confers varies with it.



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