“Of Course You Know…”: Deconstructing the Privilege of Knowledge

Some time ago, a colleague of mine was leading discussion in class, and he offhandedly remarked that, of course, we all knew that Aristotle had spoken of the same issue we were discussing in his Nichomachean Ethics. The way in which he made the utterance made it clear that, if we did not, in fact, know this reference, we were somehow lacking, that we had clearly missed out on some key part of being a truly educated person and that, equally clearly, graduate students in an English department should certainly be conversant with these sorts of (seemingly offhand) references.

Now, as a Classics major in undergrad, I was passingly familiar with Aristotle’s works (though I will admit that I had not read Nichomachean Ethics in approximately 10 years, so obviously my recollection of it would have been rusty to say the least). However, even I felt that this was somehow a thinly-veiled attack on those in the classroom who, for whatever combination of socio-economic and educational reasons, might not have had access to that same store of shared knowledge that my colleague was referencing. Whether or not the attack was malicious is impossible to say, but there was no question that there were many in the classroom who felt alienated by this comment–and, just as importantly, by its delivery–and that a valuable moment of shared learning was therefore compromised.

What distressed me the most, however, was how built into that moment of not-so-subtle shaming was a profound sort of privilege of which my colleague seemed to be utterly unaware. It no doubt never occurred to him that some of us may have come from high schools or undergraduate institutions that did not place such an emphasis on the Western canon, or that emphasized other important works of western philosophy that were not dominated by dead white men. So embedded was my colleague in both his class and knowledge privilege that any alternative to his ways of knowing seemed to exist beyond the pale of acceptability.

Nor is this sort of privileged posturing and knowledge shaming limited to graduate students (who, it must be said, often face their own challenge. The pressure to perform one’s expertise is particularly acute in the graduate classroom). I have, on numerous occasions, heard faculty from departments from various universities and departments dismiss the level of “basic knowledge” that today’s undergraduate students possess, implying that they have somehow fallen down on the job in terms of preparing themselves for their college education. This is not to say that the faculty actually think this, mind you, only that it is often heavily implied in the way in which these critiques of students are delivered.

This is not to say that there aren’t real deficiencies in the preparation that many high school students undergo as they prepare for their academic futures in college. What troubles me is the implication that somehow the students are to blame and, relatedly, that our privilege as learners and knowers is somehow natural and that this renders us somehow superior to the students we teach. Rather than attempting to understand the unique perspectives that students bring to the classroom–including and especially their socioeconomic status–these assumptions presume that there is a standard to which everyone should be held, regardless of their background.Periodically, I will catch myself making assumptions about the body of knowledge that my students bring into the classroom. I have become so entrenched in the world of academia–in particular, I have become accustomed to being around my graduate school colleagues in a private, well-funded institution–that it sometimes doesn’t occur to me that not everyone has had the same privilege that I do. When I lose track of that privilege, when I assume that my students have a knowledge and then shame then when they don’t, I lose a valuable sharing opportunity.

As a result, I have begun making a conscious effort to meet my students where they are and to help them access and share the same love of knowledge and learning that I have always possessed. I encourage them to ask me if they do not understand something or if I make a reference (or even a word) that they do not grasp, because only by doing so can I ensure that we are all learning and engaging with knowledge together. Rather than ensconcing myself in my privilege, I actively work to deconstruct it.

This more nuanced understanding of socio-economic and knowledge privilege allows me, I believe, to be a more compassionate and effective educator. I can use my knowledge, accrued and developed through years of undergraduate and graduate training, to meet students on their own terms and show them new ways of thinking and engaging, even as they also educate me. Rather than viewing their lack of knowledge as a problem to be corrected, I see it instead as an opportunity.

And that, I think, benefits both myself and my students.

 

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