28 November 2009

Knowledge as Power

We all know the phrase, “knowledge is power,” and for most of my life I have accepted the truth of this statement unequivocally. I always believed that the way to gain knowledge is through formal education; the reason I have been working to attain a degree is, essentially, to be more powerful. As we head in to the last month of our time here in Thailand, I cannot help but reflect on how my time here has altered my understanding of, and ideas about, both education and knowledge.

Our group spent a week living with families in Na Nang Bong village, which is in the North of Thailand. Villagers have been living and working there for many generations. Two open-pit gold mines have been operating for the last three years in the area surrounding the village, and in these three years the villagers have experienced dramatic changes in their health and the health of the surrounding environment. Fifty-four of 259 villagers tested positive for cyanide poisoning. Many of the fields in the area no longer produce rice, and of those that do, the rice commands a lower price at the market. The villagers were told that their water is contaminated with heavy metals and they should not drink or bathe in it. The villagers have formed a group called “People Who Conserve Their Hometown” (PWCTH) to attempt to combat the effects they have experienced and to prevent more mines from opening in the area. Through speaking with the villagers and living in their homes for the week, we learned a great deal about their lives.

We also met with representatives from the Provincial Health Office and the Ministry of Industry to discuss their role in the situation. For me, these exchanges were the most interesting ones we have had this semester. It was not what was said that was interesting, however, but rather it was the display of the power structure stacked up against the villagers and the implied judgments of what knowledge is and should be. They presented power points with slide after slide of numbers, graphs, and maps. They attempted to take us through the process of gold extraction, from prospecting to refining. The officials at each exchange reiterated numerous times that because there is no scientific proof that the mines are responsible for the effects the villagers are experiencing, the mine cannot be blamed for what the villagers are experiencing and observing. The provincial health officer stated that because the villagers only have a “fourth-grade education,” they should trust the word of the government officials who are educated and therefore much more knowledgeable.

I agree that knowledge is power, but my experience in Na Nang Bong has shown me that it is only a certain kind of knowledge that is power. Scientific knowledge is power. A B.A, DR., or PH.D after a name is power. Conversely, knowledge that cannot be translated onto a power point presentation is not power. What does it mean for a community, a country, a world where we no longer believe in the value of knowledge passed from generation to generation, knowledge that is not written in books, knowledge that cannot be plugged in to a graph or chart? What are the implications of the fact that the knowledge of the villagers, both the base on which the community has been built and the threads that hold it together, is worthless to those who possess knowledge that they paid for?

Perhaps in our relentless pursuit for knowledge, which in reality is just a pursuit for truth, we are in many ways moving away from truth. I am not saying that I want to throw two years of my college education out the window and become a farmer. On the contrary, I have only come to value my own educational opportunities more. I guess what I am saying is that I now recognize that the knowledge I am acquiring at school is merely one kind of knowledge, and I want to seek out knowledge in all its forms. Perhaps it is this other knowledge that will give me the power I am seeking: the power of appreciation, of sympathy, of connectedness, of understanding.

Haley Campbell
Bates College


Jordan said...

I think you make some really great points in your post Haley. I have been thinking a lot about the same things lately, and although I value my traditional Western education I have learned more useful, applicable things while studying in Thailand then I have my whole four years of college.

For example, I have studied globalization issues in a formal classroom setting, and was well aware of its criticisms, but it was not until I experienced firsthand the effects it can have on rural communities that I was able to form my own opinion on the issue. I therefore feel that experiential learning has the potential to be a powerful tool in creating a more aware and socially conscious global society.

Ashlee said...

Thanks so much for your thoughts, and sharing your ideas on what it means to say that “knowledge is power”. It is such an unfortunate situation to hear what is happening in Na Nang Bong village, especially to hear that many of the villagers have tested positive for cyanide poisoning, from what it clearly seems to be the fault of the Ministry of Industry. In many cases I definitely agree with you in that the only knowledge that is considered of good use is the knowledge of the academy, that can be backed up with books and/or educated research.
Fortunately, spending time studying abroad, I have learned different. Some of the smartest and most knowledgeable people that I have had the opportunity to listen to and speak with have been some of the people with the lowest levels of education. When I think of knowledge, I think that it can come from all kinds of sources, in fact, I think that experience should be valued more than ‘book smarts’ when considering knowledge. It is unfortunate to think that some of the people with a lot of knowledge are overlooked due to their low levels of education.
I have learned during my semester abroad to listen and take heed from all types of people who express their ideas, regardless of their level of knowledge. Take everything as it comes, and try to suspend all pre-judgments until they have been adequately proven. And most of all, realize that knowledge comes in many different forms, education, experience, and many other sorts. It is important to value all that comes to us, regardless of where they would be classified in the academy.

Ashlee Woods
Emory University
Crossing Borders 2009, Cuernavaca Mexico

Anonymous said...

Hi Haley,
Thank you for your post. It was very interesting. I think that you made an especially good point at the end when you briefly talked about the different kinds of knowledge that can be just as powerful as "scientific, power-point" knowledge: particularly the "power of understanding and connectedness."

I think it is true that the rich and powerful often manipulate "scientific" knowledge for their own benefit. We have certainly encountered this during our studies in Mexico this fall, particularly when we went to El Salvador and met with two members of the U.S. embassy. They showed us a lot of power point slides about how neoliberal development will help El Salvador, and how United States' business involvement in the country has greatly benefited El Salvador.

Meanwhile, we knew that in fact, the neoliberal, export-based development that the United States was supporting in El Salvador was benefiting primarily the United States and was harming many Salvadorans.

This seems like an example in which "knowledge" and power-point data was being used to exploit the poor, who knew what was actually going on but did not have access to technology to present their "knowledge" on the subject.

However, I think that the truly powerful knowledge in the case of those who are oppressed--and those of us who would like to help them--is not the ability to make power point slide shows about their factual knowledge (because the businesses would probably not listen to them even then, and making a slide show is not something that gives people the hope and encouragement they need to keep struggling against their oppressors).

Rather, I think truly powerful knowledge for the oppressed is knowledge about others who have had similar experiences of oppression and what they are doing to resist it. I think that education can be a powerful force NOT just in order to show slide shows to American college students or legitimize (on paper) abuses of human rights, but rather to give people COURAGE and confidence and hope and realize that they are not alone, and that they are not the only ones who are being oppressed.

I think that some of the most important education any humans can receive, then, comes from being able to share our experiences with each other. Far more powerful than outlining the scientific "FACTS" is discovering that other people are suffering in the same ways as you are and that your feelings are legitimate, so that you can feel motivated to resist your oppression and change your situation.

For example, some of the most powerful kinds of knowledge and education held by the people we have talked with here in Mexico is the knowledge they received through their involvement in "base christian comunities" or "women's empowerment groups." These women met and shared their experiences with each other, and this knowledge--this realization and affirmation that they were not the only ones experiencing abuse, etc--was incredibly powerful for them.

Thus, although I think that this kind of knowledge CAN come from a college education, I also think that people can learn about things like this outside of any college or university. I think that when people can share their experiences through discussions, THAT is where knowledge--of the situations of other people--TRULY is powerful.

Maina said...

You and I have had talks about this -- that everything has something to teach us, if only we are ready to learn from everything. Your ideas about knowledge being translated into a power point and what kind of knowledge is powerful are huge to consider now that we're on our way home -- what are we going to do with what we've learned, and what we've learned about learning?
Our semester learning from villagers, feeling the importance of knowledge passed from generation to generation, has enlightened my perspective on education, too. Not only can we learn something from everything, but working with people also means always being a teacher. The value of knowledge that can't be plugged into a chart: Is this something that is our turn to teach now?

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