Democracy and Knowledge

This week I ran a General Knowledge quiz over a succession of lunchtimes at school. The quiz was open to all pupils from across the age range (13-18) and there were around 60 entrants this year (not too bad, in retrospect, although fewer than last). There were 80 questions for pupils to complete, and the quiz was multiple choice (with 4 options). I wrote many of the questions with the intention that, even if the boys didn’t know the right answer, they might be able to form an educated guess and – even if not – pick up information of interest simply from the question itself.

So, for example, in asking a question about the ancient Etruscans, I posed it as follows: ‘The ancient Etruscans leave no written texts: our knowledge of their culture is confined mainly to archaeological finds, including a series of impressive tombs. In which modern country might you find the archaeological remains of the ancient Etruscan civilisation?’

And, when asking a question about the opera Carmen, I framed it like this: ‘Who wrote the opera ‘Carmen’, which tells the story of the seduction of a naive Spanish soldier, Don Jose, by Carmen, a gypsy girl?’

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A scene from Bizet’s Carmen

Posing the questions in this way was done (I admit) with the intention not simply of providing a tidbit of knowledge about the subject matter they refer to, but with a view to inspiring further interest or investigation of topics that pupils might not have heard of, or that might not have interested them, before.

What particularly struck me as I was setting the quiz this year, though, was the importance of general knowledge across a whole range of areas of life – from the humdrum and everyday to the way we are able to exercise important individual liberties. I have been thinking quite a bit, in other words, not just about the quiz itself, but about the place of general knowledge in education – and democracies – more generally.

A few years ago, around the time of the election of Donald Trump, I encountered a provocative and very interesting article in the New Yorker by Caleb Crain, entitled ‘The Case against Democracy’ (link here). The opening lines of the article gave immediate pause for thought: ‘Roughly a third of American voters think that the Marxist slogan “From each according to his ability to each according to his need” appears in the Constitution. About as many are incapable of naming even one of the three branches of the United States government. Fewer than a quarter know who their senators are, and only half are aware that their state has two of them’.

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This sort of general knowledge deficit is of course not unique to citizens of America’s democracy: a degree of unawareness of political and constitutional realities exists everywhere. The remainder of Crain’s article looks at different ways in which political theorists have tried to grapple with the problem of ‘political ignorance’ among voters in democracies. From considering arguments for weighing the votes of the knowledgeable more heavily, to arguments in favour of outright vote restriction; from trying to ascertain whether there might be a ‘rational’ explanation for political ignorance, to trying to assess the psychological dispositions of those who are both more and less ignorant: a lot has been done to try to understand ‘political ignorance’, and to explore how it might be addressed.

One point that is not considered in Crain’s article is that the existence of something like a General Knowledge requirement for participation/involvement in political/civic life already exists in countries like the UK and the US, in the form of the tests which those applying for citizenship or leave to remain in those countries must complete. The existence of such tests is not widely queried nor do the tests themselves occasion much (if any, from what I have seen) controversy. Why shouldn’t a similar test, checking knowledge of basic political and constitutional realities, be a requirement for all those wishing to exercise the right to vote? And isn’t this the sort of thing schools might provide for all pupils before they leave?

An obvious worry here would of course be with the potential for corruption: making any such test too easy or difficult, or politically biased in some or other direction, for instance. But is it not also worrying that widespread misinformation, ‘fake news’ and disingenuous political campaigning also generate the potential for equally – if not more – serious corruption of the political process? That, arguably, is the situation we must confront.

Arguments in favour of the introduction of tests of political knowledge/ignorance do not seem to have an ancient pedigree. That this is so may seem surprising. For one thing, after all, the arrival of democratic government in the world’s first democracy in ancient Athens seems to have been accompanied by a rising tide of education. Where, previously, only the nobly born could expect to receive an education, increasingly young men (though not women) from across the body of free citizens might now receive one (sometimes very much to the chagrin of Athens’ aristocrats).

And yet: we do not – to my knowledge – possess evidence of any ancient laws mandating education for citizens of democratic Athens from this period. It seems rather that the free-born just recognised something good in literate education, for instance, that seemed to be of value: it certainly wasn’t a requirement, though, that they had to have an education to participate in politics.

Deep in the very history of democracy, then, we find knowledge – at least, that is, knowledge of a sort that is transmitted through an education – being treated not as a fundamental requirement of democratic involvement, but as an optional freedom which citizens might choose, but not be required, to have.

The argument that democratic government in ancient Athens was nonetheless effective at dispersing knowledge among its citizens in ways that produced many desirable outcomes for the city can still, however, be made.* It’s just that – so the argument goes – knowledge emerges among citizens of the democracy more as a product of the Athenian political system and its social networks and institutions – but not in any altogether obvious way out of its educational institutions too.

What significance might there be in the fact that, at the very origin of democratic institutions, rights and citizenship, no special measure was introduced to the effect that a particular kind of education would be the norm?

Figures of significance in the later development of democracy certainly recognised the importance of having an educated citizen body. For John Adams, the American statesman and founding father, writing in his Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law in 1765, ‘Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right, from the frame of their nature, to knowledge’.

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John Adams, founding father and the 2nd US president

Adams is worth quoting at length: ‘The preservation of the means of knowledge, among the lowest ranks, is of more importance to the public than all the property of all the rich men in the country…Let us tenderly and kindly cherish, therefore, the means of knowledge. Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write. Let every order and degree among the people rouse their attention and animate their resolution. Let them all become attentive to the grounds and principles of government’.

Adams was not alone among the US founding fathers in adopting this sort of view. Indeed, so influential did such thoughts become that De Tocqueville, on visiting the US in the 19th century, made the following observation at the outset of his great work on American politics: ‘In the United States, the sum of men’s education is directed toward politics’.

This, if it represents an accurate assessment, may not, of course, be taken to reflect an altogether healthy state of affairs.

Perhaps, and especially given the parlous state of contemporary US politics, there is good reason to remain suspicious of any attempt to introduce a new test of political knowledge to voters, or into school curricula. Do we want education to have an outright and precisely specified requirement of political knowledge?

If so, do we risk moving in the direction of producing the sort of education Tocqueville identified as characteristic of the 19th century US?

If not, perhaps we will remain in some sense close to the somewhat more laissez-faire democrats of ancient Athens, for whom democratic citizenship and formal education did not need to go together, hand in hand.

*See e.g. Josiah Ober (2008), Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens.

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