Sunday, September 27, 2009

Distrust of Knowledge in Chaucer and Modern Times

Throughout both the Miller’s Tale and the Franklin’s Tale, there is a juxtaposition of—and tension between—those with scientific knowledge and those without it. Chaucer seems to portray the knowledgeable in a negative way, as though they are inherently untrustworthy. In the Miller’s Tale, “hende Nicholas” is described as a “poure scoler” from whom people seek advice and knowledge of the future (lns 8190-3199). He takes advantage of the simple carpenter (John) who trusts in his scientific prediction of the second great flood (like that of Noah’s time). Nicholas and the carpenter’s young wife (Alison) successfully have an affair, and in the end, the carpenter looks comically insane, having fallen to the ground in his tub with no water in sight. The reader is left feeling as though Nicholas should have known better than to abuse his knowledge in such a way.
In the Franklin’s Tale, we are told of Dorigen, who jokingly tells the young squire Aurelius that the only way she would break her vow to her husband is if he “remoeve alle the rokkes, stoon by stoon,/[t]hat they ne letter ship ne boot to goon” (lns 993-994). Aurelius then takes this comment made in jest and plots to tear Dorigen away from her husband by seeking the skills of a “tregetorue” who possesses advanced knowledge of the rotation of planets and, presumably, the tides (lns 1141, 1273-1284). Aurelius has successfully “won” Dorigen’s virginity, by manipulating nature in unnatural ways—something Dorigen laments in line 1345: “It is agayns the process of nature.” The reader sympathizes with the duped Dorigen and her honorable husband, Arveragus.
These two tales made me reflect on the privilege of knowledge and the responsibility that comes with it. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, we are also confronted with this issue. Jim is constantly without knowledge and is frequently taken advantage of because of his ignorance. We were all deeply troubled in the scenes of his escape in which Tom Sawyer kept from Jim the fact that he was a free man, instead forcing him to suffer through some ridiculous notion of adventure. By deceiving Jim, a man ignorant through no fault of his own, Tom Sawyer becomes, to the reader, a bit of a monster.
There are examples of this in our own world, as well. The first that comes to mind is my experience at the Caroline Center, an educational center for women in Baltimore. I worked with women studying for their GED, tutoring them in each of the areas tested: math, reading comprehension, and grammar. In most of the women’s experiences, they had been entirely let down by the school systems in which they were supposed to be getting educated. One woman told me about a high school math class in which the teacher would sit in the front of the room and refuse to offer any guidance. Another told me about another math class in which her teacher left a month into the year, only to be temporarily replaced every few weeks, so that nothing got done. For these women, it wasn’t that they weren’t willing to learn; it was that no one had taken the time to teach them.
As if that weren’t bad enough, in many instances, these women’s families were completely unsupportive of their dedicating three hours a day for three days a week to the program. There were many reasons why their families thought there were better things for them to do, not the least of which being an economic objection—that by not working those nine hours, they were losing out on nine hours’ worth of pay. Beyond this monetary concern—which I realize was no trivial matter for most—was, I suspect, a general distrust in and disbelief in the value of knowledge.
In the world these women were surviving in, knowledge was not a prized possession. It didn’t stop a random bullet from killing your brother; it didn’t keep your heat on in the winter. The schools didn’t want them and weren’t helping them, so they left before graduation in favor of minimum wage jobs around the neighborhood. What their families couldn’t see—and what they women were only just coming to realize—was that knowledge was the pathway out of the cycle in which they lived. For them and their children, siblings, and parents to ever break out of the oppressive bubble in which they were living, they needed to fight like hell and trust in something they never had before—the power of knowledge.

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