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OP-ED: Knowledge as a commodity

  • Published at 01:02 am November 8th, 2020
Books library education knowledge
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Is knowledge something to be mindlessly consumed and then discarded?

For the past week or so, the whole of Bangladesh has been taken by storm by news regarding the latest US election cycle. On the surface, there is certainly nothing wrong with that. The US sits on top of the global hegemony, and the more discussing about something like that, the better. But this does bring back some memories.

While I am thoroughly interested in abstract concepts like politics and superstructures, I wasn’t always like this. I wasn’t always an “aatel,” if you will. Back in the day, I was pretty much content with playing video games and watching cartoons. And during one of these periods, I had just finished one of my favourite cartoons and was super stoked about discussing it at school.

But when I got there, my heart sank as people started throwing around alien concepts like “In chance we believe” and “The first black president.” Yes, I am talking about the 2008 presidential elections, and the first Black president of America, Barack Obama.

Now, while it is possible to write page after page regarding that event alone, I’m more concerned with the event surrounding it, that is, finding my friends who were barely in class IV or V talking about it. Keep in mind, we were still young, and we barely knew anything about such an event. But they still kept talking about it, feigning an air of importance and maturity, like you see a certain someone in America do it -- and in the end, I joined in as well.

I knew nothing about the event in question, but I have always had this gift of catching words and phrases from the air and spinning them into a somewhat coherent narrative. And you know what? They bought it.

And you know what else? Even though I was shooting my mouth, I did feel important and enriched for taking part in such a heavy conversation. And deep down, I even started to believe some of the things I’d been saying. People who have read so far might be thinking that this will be a discussion on not faking knowledge in order to fit in -- a modern spin on the parable of the crow wanting to be a swan. But keep reading, and you will see that it is not the case.

Knowledge has always been revered in our society. We have always been fed the gospel of accumulating more knowledge to climb up the social ladder. It even works in some cases, provided you have the social standing and the economic privilege to afford it. In short, good education which can be deduced through knowledge is an indication of a person’s social and economic standing, as well as a somewhat accurate prediction of a person’s social and economic standing.

As such, it does make sense that people would display their knowledge to gain some sort of a social credit and prestige (a morality of which -- again -- can be debated for page after page). But the problematic part comes a bit later.

Knowledge itself is a huge umbrella term, and it covers a wide array of subjects. As such, both information about rocks and information about the US election can and should be treated as knowledge. But if you try talking about rocks and cartoons at a local tong or something, all you will get are weird stares and demeaning whistles.

But if you talk about something important like the economy, if your delivery is great and convincing, you will be made the king of the hill and put on an invisible pedestal, even when you are wrong.

Then there’s the case of knowledge, or lack-of-knowledge-shaming. I’ve always been proud of my skills in English, and I’m sure there are others like me as well. While that is something that is slowly being addressed now, other forms of knowledge are still scorned. For example, in our public education system, subjects like business and engineering are highly sought after, while subjects like English or film-making are sometimes looked down upon. I’m not saying that people can’t have personal biases and preferences, but when that personal bias comes from the monetary and “productivity” value of a subject, that’s when things start becoming problematic.

Circling back to the start of my argument, it is true that knowledge is an indication of one’s place and future in society, but that is only true for a certain kind of knowledge. Do well in business school, and watch the money coming in. Do well in literature, and bring shame to your parents. Under the current capitalist structure, only certain kinds of knowledge and certain groups of people are held to an esteem, while the rest are thrown aside.

Knowledge is no longer something that enlightens someone, or makes them a better thinker. Knowledge has been relegated to play the role of a signifier, of one’s status of dominance in the capitalist structure. And I don’t know about you, but I do find that problematic.

But some would not have a problem with that. We have a limited number of years and resources, and if through conditioning, we are put on a path to living our “best” lives, what’s the issue with that? Well, I am nearing the end of my allotted words, so I’ll have to end here.

When you have a structure that prioritizes some over others and puts people on a conveyor belt where any deviation from the norm is marked and punished, doesn’t life begin to seem -- forgive me for being an “aatel” again -- Kafkaaesque?

Under a system like this, knowledge becomes a standard commodity, something that you mindlessly consume and then discard. To put that into perspective, Bangladesh boasts one of highest literacy rates in Asia. Yet, you still can’t get rid of the misogynist, extremist culture of the masses, so much so that the idea of laws against marital rape are regarded as ways to destabilize the traditional family structure, while making it easy to have affairs. Food for thought.

Nafis Shahriar is a student of business and a freelance writer.

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