A Little Knowledge Is a Dangerous Thing


By: Nancy Salvato

“A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again.” — Alexander Pope

Around this time last year I participated in the Center for Civic Education’s National Academy, where Professor Will Harris led a selected group of students in 21 days of intense study on the basic issues of political theory, and the values and principles of American constitutional democracy. Early on, the importance of gaining a “surplus of mind,” as a crucial element of the democratic process, was discussed. In order to become thinkers or problem solvers, our citizenry must be taught by teachers who are ambitious in their learning goals. When teachers over simplify learning objectives, this conditions our citizenry to fail at more complicated tasks. Conversely, giving the populace the tools to figure out the world’s complexity enables each person to be more powerful and free. Moreover, this is a necessary component of our system of government.

To elaborate further, a surplus of knowledge is especially useful when dealing with unexpected situations. When weighing the possible consequences of a decision, an intelligent person draws on these reserves. The key to “intelligence” is a capacity to weigh the variables that come into play when assessing individual situations. A surplus of knowledge gives us a reasonable shot at being able to anticipate short and long term repercussions of actions or inaction. Indeed, as a colleague of mine recently noted, every choice comes with regret.

Our country cannot continue to be powerful and free if our citizens are fed portion controlled knowledge. Civically responsible citizens must develop the ability to think divergently and convergently. Citizens must exercise the capacity of mind to imagine and see the world as a whole, instead of seeing only the parts. On a more basic level, people need to recognize how others are effected, not just themselves. Still, knowledge has and continues to be made entertaining and simple. This is condescending because it assumes that the American people are not that smart, or capable. The result is that our citizenry has become befuddled and bemused – instead of a source of power. The people are no longer in control, our system of power has become inverted and the people have become the object of governmental rule. (We Blame the Politicians but we put them there)

A citizen is one who rules and is ruled in turn. Under the law, there must be the capacity for both. Our society was and is founded on our citizenry having sufficient commitment to government. A really good constitution constrains the way you think – naturalizes itself, we come to think that way, constitutionally. When this happens, our disagreements fall under the rubric of our Constitution because we aren’t really that different. American political discourse, however, has been corrupted. Political discourse should not be about conservatives and liberals; at issue is identifying “Constitutional Perspectives” By doing so, we can argue principles, not ideology. One way to think constitutionally is to understand that there is a pendulum which leans in the direction of individual rights and the sacrifice of some to be part of the greater community. The Constitution is there to hold people accountable to each other as part of a larger community. The duty of public office should be to uphold the Constitution.

Although I agree with most of what my husband Frank writes in the piece cited above, that politicians are elected to represent their constituents, I don’t necessarily agree that them not feeling beholden to any ideology or political party as being the problem. The problem as I see it is that they don’t understand the constitution and the citizens who elect them don’t understand the constitution. Jefferson said, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Being willing to defend our constitution is what binds us together as a people and a community. Not understanding the importance of it is what is tearing us apart.



Nancy Salvato is the President of The Basics Project, (www.Basicsproject.org) a non-profit, non-partisan 501 (C) (3) research and educational project whose mission is to promote the education of the American public on the basic elements of relevant political, legal and social issues important to our country. She is also a Staff Writer, for the New Media Alliance, Inc., a non-profit (501c3) coalition of writers and grass-roots media outlets, where she contributes on matters of education policy.

New Media Alliance Television (www.nmatv.com)

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