This piece was originally published in Hippo Reads in the fall of 2015. I have edited it slightly to adapt it for Policy Options. While the focus of the piece is primarily the United States, I believe it applies beyond the American context (though it may, perhaps, apply more to that country now than ever before). And given recent debates and discussions about the state of Canadian democracy and of our news media, it seems to be an appropriate time to share this again with Canada in mind.

Frederick and Heidi

On the day I started thinking about this piece, I read about Frederick the Great and Heidi Montag. Frederick because he makes an important appearance in a volume I’m reading on the history of Western Civilization; Heidi because an algorithm inserted her into my Facebook newsfeed, and thus into my life.

The former is best known for revolutionizing Prussia during his forty-year, 18th-century reign. Austere and brilliant, the enlightened despot–poet and scholar, military genius and rotten husband–Frederick committed himself entirely to his people, spending his days diligently at work, shunning the trappings of royalty, wearing simple garments and dismissing his crown as “merely a hat that lets the rain in.” During his time, the arts and culture flourished in Prussia, the country snatched up valuable land to expand its territory, and the face of Europe was remade.

The latter is a sometimes-actress and most recently an homage-payer to the “bikini booty photo shoot” of Kim Kardashian.

The incongruency of the lives of the absolutist ruler of Prussia and the diva of The Hills was a bit much for me to try to sort out on a lazy afternoon. Different eras, locations, lineages, careers, zeitgeists. I wasn’t sure how I could bridge the sort of distance that emerges when the defining trauma for one is witnessing the beheading of a dear friend on the order of one’s father–and having the corpse of that friend left as—is outside your jail cell as punishment for one’s trying to flee the homeland—and the other is having to endure the sight of and subsequent scandalous chatter about Lacey showering in front of Spencer.

When one wants to attack the present, the most convenient foil is often the past. By taking up a time whose inhabitants can no longer speak for themselves, it’s easy to make a comparison suited to denigrating your own. It’s our era, right? It’s the kids these days. It wasn’t like this when carriages filled the streets and Bach played his own compositions. But the more I judged the sort of people who buy what Heidi is selling, the more I wondered how fit I was to take on the role of moral adjudicator, elevating the past and denigrating the present. The wider I tried to imagine the gap between what seemed like a then-gilded age of culture and refinement and a now-bankrupt period, the narrower it seemed. At least in some ways.

I started to think about the many anonymous faces of Frederick’s time and then those of my own. It turns out that you can compare the subjects of enlightenment Prussia and citizens of the 21st century democratic world. They share two important things in common: they are governed by states and they have very little influence on how that governance unfolds.

The subjects of absolutist Prussia relied on the benevolence of an autocrat whose approach to governance was, for its time, progressive and comparably favorable to his people when stacked against distant lands and the then-recent past. Today, citizens of many advanced industrial democracies rely on the benevolence of the social, political, and economic institutions that underwrite the states in which they live—institutions that are, likewise, in many ways progressive and comparably favorable compared to what was on offer not so long ago and what’s available outside of the democratic world.

There’s nothing novel or particularly interesting about this comparison until one reflects on what’s keeping the system going. Because it’s not the people for whom it ostensibly exists.

In 2014, political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page made international headlines when their study of American public policy making between 1981-2002 indicated that the United States was much closer to an oligarchy than to a democratic republic. (This wasn’t how the authors of the paper framed it; their conclusion was “Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.” But same difference.)

Their conclusion was widely shared and commented on, but few were surprised by it. For decades, the epithet of oligarchy had been thrown around whenever the disempowered raged against what they saw as an elite, unresponsive government buttressed by an opaque and stodgy state that was under the thumb of Big Capital. But now there was quantitative, scholarly data to prove it. The story soon disappeared and the sun kept rising. Basic political and economic rights remain in place—for many, and certainly far more than during the Frederick’s era, but still not for all—but the system that enables an oligarchy to flourish remains unthreatened by the population who countersign its excesses.

What’s knowledge for?

Given that humankind has a long history of excellence in consumption and amusement but poverty of self-rule, it is tempting to call it a day on self-government. But that seems hasty to me. There’s hope for a more engaged citizenry, but the fulfillment of such hope requires work.

Having knowledge of politics and economics is different than having knowledge of physics or biology, of sports or cars, of carpentry or engineering. Knowledge of politics and economics is a tool; and while a knowledge of any number of other subjects can also be a tool, it’s the not same. Knowledge of politics and economics is an implement forged in the understanding of the history, concepts, institutions, facts, practices, rationales, tactics and strategies of the two subjects that dominate and shape our lives. It’s knowledge forged through collective application and its concern is public matters shared by a population: that is to say, through being put to use alongside others. Once it is strong, it can be used for communicating, for organizing, for resisting, for keeping a government honest, for bringing about change. But it is of use only when that knowledge is taken up by those who have it and put into service through seminars and lectures, through candidacies and votes, through marches and protests. The tool of knowledge both enables and orients its possessor, and with it a citizenry can self-educate and begin to exercise its right to self-government. Without that knowledge, it can be little more than a sundered mass or an aimless mob.

Where knowledge comes from is important. But exactly which bits of history, philosophy, literature, political science, sociology, psychology, communications theory and so on are included is less important than the fact that the one who learns about these things takes away a critical capacity to evaluate the current state of domestic or international affairs, to place that current state of affairs in some historical and moral context, to communicate his or her thoughts to others, and to translate knowledge into action. In short: the specific content is less important than the capacity to critically absorb it and to use it to self-govern; after all, citizens with a robust capacity for critical self-rule will be able to weed out the quackgrass from the gardenias.

Once this capacity is developed, knowing about the past and present history and state of politics and economics allows us to orient ourselves in the present and direct ourselves towards the future. Knowing the history of politics and economics gives context; history becomes a compass for a journey.

In the West, this journey might take you from the fledgling settlements of pre-historic Mesopotamia across the wine dark seas of Ancient Greece and Rome, to the rising cathedrals of Medieval Europe and the chattering coffee houses of the 17th-century in which subjects and citizens of that same continent began to think out loud; it might carry you through the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the wars of the 20th-century, the digital and communications revolution, and up into and beyond the stratosphere.

Elsewhere and for others, the journey might be different; but for the truly curious and ambitious, whatever form it takes, it will be one of many as they try to connect the many stars in history’s firmament into one fantastic constellation. Or as they discover, to draw on American naturalist John Muir, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

Muir’s observation applies to history as much as it applies to the natural world. The sorts of journeys available to the self-educating citizen are diverse and countless—they may start at any number of beginnings and the paths they offer may twist and turn through any number of peoples, places, and eras, just as they may be viewed through any number of lenses. To presuppose a right or proper course is to specify what should instead be discovered and to undermine one of the most important points of self-education: developing the capacity to find one’s own way.

The education gap and the media

In the United States, 14 per cent of adults are illiterate—over 32 million of them, 19 per cent of whom graduated high school. These Americans are part of a total population of 775 million people globally who cannot read, 66 per cent of whom are female. The implications of these numbers are staggering and indeed terrifying. There may be no better way to control a population than to deprive them of education—to deprive them of the knowledge required to communicate, to organize, to self-rule. This is especially true of knowledge of politics and economics.

Lewis Lapham, the former long-time editor of Harper’s Magazine, has spoken at length about the value and importance of education. In a lecture he gave on the importance of education, especially of knowledge of history, Lapham argued “Unlike moths and goldfish, human beings deprived of memory tend to become disoriented and easily frightened. Not only do we lose track of our own stories—who we are, where we’ve been, where we might be going—but our elected representatives forget why sovereign nations go to war. The blessed states of amnesia cannot support either the hope of individual liberty or the practice of democratic self-government.” The same can be said about politics and economics, which incorporate not just history, but also, as I’ve pointed out, concepts, apparatuses, facts, practices, rationales, tactics, and strategies.

The state of contemporary journalism might not be helping our collective self-rule. The rise of mass entertainment-as-edification (or media-as-fashion-show) is a waiving of the white flag, conceding simultaneously that the market must know best and that the people must prefer diversion to self-government. The rise of the algorithm—which dictates who should you follow on Twitter, what you see in your Facebook newsfeed, which results are privileged by your search engine—is just as disconcerting. No longer does one have to bear the indignity of being exposed to an unwelcome utterance, thought, image, or idea. And while the focus of education turns to preparing students for the workforce, it undermines their capacity to acquire and use the sorts of knowledge required for competent self-government—that is knowledge in the broadest sense of politics and economics.

What we do here and what we do together

I think of knowledge of politics and economics as an awareness and understanding of the things we do together that are directed towards some public end; that is, things we do for ourselves or for others that impact how we live together. The two are inextricably linked and must be so; after all, we are animals who live in communities governed by what happens in these two fields.

In many ways, more than time separates Frederick and Heidi and those who are their contemporaries. But what unites us all and what links us to countless individuals from the past and to those who will be in the future is the human imperative to live in a community and our consequent need to both govern and be governed. Understanding and respecting that imperative implies bringing about better knowledge of politics and economics. Knowledge of these fields may be good in and of themselves, but they are also essential for the more practical and essential purpose of building capacity for self-rule.

Twitter image: Featureflash / Shutterstock.com