A crisis of knowledge

“The internet will never be an important source of information in education”, I mused to a university colleague in the early 1990s when one of my students wrote an essay on the environment using dodgy sources from the web. I got that seriously wrong. But we do face a crisis of knowledge in politics.

Look at what we has been presented as if it were truth this year. Crazy promises and threats by Brexiteers and Remainers, wild accusations of rigging the US election by Trump, and last week the Daily Mail claiming that the court ruling on Article 50 was an example of the judges as ‘enemies of the people’. In a bid to undermine opponents, journalists collude with politicians to do politics, trying to influence public opinion to their side through attacks on whoever disagrees with them. Contrast this with the measured reporting by public broadcasters – BBC, ITV, Channel 4 – and the more thoughtful journalists, politicians or commenters or reports by Parliament who manage to convey the full range of views. Take this House of Commons library blog which makes it clear that the High Court ruling was about the relationship between Parliament and government and which has the power to trigger Article 50. This is written by a constitution expert.

Politicians have been rude about experts recently, again presumably to undermine those that disagree with them. Since experts do often disagree, relying on them doesn’t and can’t mean believing them all but we should surely take seriously what they say. Judges are in a different league. The rule of law depends on us taking not just their views, but their authority seriously as well. The undermining of experts, expertise and institutions that make democracy work – judiciary and Parliament for example – is making our political world increasingly unstable.

This fast and febrile new political world is fuelled by the Wild West of social media. It is addictive, exciting and potentially violent to democracy. Since regulation of social media is even more challenging than constraining the press without compromising its freedom, we have to up our game in citizenship education. It has been taught in schools but in a shallow way, resting on the assumption that the point is to inculcate civic values. It sounds OK but it’s not. It is not up to the government, or schools, to shape children’s values: we will all have different ideas about what they should be. But they should be given the opportunity to learn about and debate the significance of political institutions, processes (including political communication) and decision-making. Above all, we all need to develop better skills at navigating the battlefields of knowledge and the best way is to start when we are as young as possible.  

Overview

Emma Crewe is an anthropologist working on politics, governance and identity in civil society organisations and parliament in the UK, South Asia and East Africa based at SOAS, University of London. Her research into international development NGOs began in 1987 and into parliament goes back to the House of Lords in 1998-2002 and the House of Commons 2011-2013.

She is currently co-ordinating a research coalition engaged in research on parliament's role in poverty reduction in Bangladesh and Ethiopia with the Hansard Society. She has joined the faculty teaching on an innovative course (Doctorate in Management by Research) as a Visiting Professor at the University of Hertfordshire and has been Chair of the INGO Health Poverty Action since 2015. She is also researching gender equality within an international NGO with the Danish Institute for International Studies.

In April 2015 her book House of Commons: an Anthropology of MPs at Work was published by Bloomsbury and a pamphlet Commons and Lords: a Short Anthropology of Parliament came out as a Haus Curiosity, one of a series commissioned by Peter Hennessy. The House of Commons was shortlisted for the Thinking Aloud / British Sociological Association ethnography prize and she talked about it on Radio 4's Thinking Aloud in November 2016.

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