“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” –Albert Einstein. Discuss the ways in which knowledge may or may not be dangerous in two works you have read in your OIB curriculum.
Words, language, the ability to express our thoughts and to reflect on it, is what differentiate us from animals ; it is what makes us human. This enabled humankind to, over centuries, construct a precise knowledge of their surroundings. Since, individuals have used this ability to differentiate one another and, ultimately, to establish their respective status. The ambiguous nature of knowledge, and the power that it confers, has been explored since ancient times in literature. In the 17th century, Shakespeare, through The Tempest, conveys the polyvalent characteristics of knowledge and how it can be used. Still relevant in today’s society, Atwood, in The Handmaid’s Tale, tackles the importance of awareness and instruction ; the ability to reflect not only change life itself, it can even alter a society. On one hand, Shakespeares approaches the paradoxical role that society gives to knowledge and how dangerous it can be as individuals at the top can use it to achieve their true intention. On the other hand, in her dystopian novel, Atwood focuses on the true nature of knowledge : it is a powerful and dangerous tool that can be reconstructed by a political regime to deeply transform a civilization.
In The Tempest, the playwright clearly establishes the role of knowledge in a community, or, on a larger scale, in a society. Knowledge is ultimately linked with language in the author’s mind. By this very ability to express yourself, an individual unconsciously shows his social status. However, Shakespeare soon deconstructs this belief through his characters and the use of a specific language. Knowledge itself is paradoxical, hence, limiting it to a single judgement is a common mistake. The beauty of speaking and knowing resides in the fact that it doesn’t know limits. To illustrate this point, the author resorts to his monster-like character, Caliban, and to his comic relief characters, Trinculo and Stephano. During their first encounter, it soon became clear who is in power and who isn’t : Caliban has found a new master in the two drunkards that are Trinculo and Stephano. By resorting to a large diction of insults such as « moon calf » or « monster », Shakespeare establishes how language (here knowledge) is used by one to assert their superiority while diminishing someone. This notion is underlined by the many repetition of such words. Yet, the two men have a pitiful way of expressing themselves and clearly dispose of a short sized knowledge whereas Caliban’s words are filled with eloquence and grace. This contrast, highlighted more precisely with the distinct use of prose and verse, enables the author to show that our original perception of knowledge is flawed. Additionally, the play delivers a message on what is true power : it is being in control or being eloquent ? Both can be attained through knowledge but without it, our control is an artifice : it is solely doomed to end. For instance, towards the end of the play, the two drunkards are caught by Prospero and their plan ends up being a complete failure as they did not have any accurate insight of the situation. Prospero, on the other hand, is always in control as he knows every incident on this island, along with his ability to produce mesmerizing speeches.
This brings us to the second aspect of knowledge : it is a tool for manipulation and domination. As language is a part of knowledge, Shakespeare highlights the dangerous nature of words through the character of Prospero. His thirst of knowledge has reached such an extent that the character ultimately lost his dukedom. Before all, the sorcerer’s ability to use language and knowledge is what enables him to be in control throughout the play. Shakespeare’s use of frequent aside and dramatic irony shows how one can rapidly transform the nature of knowledge. Prospero quickly becomes adaptable to anyone and develops the art of acting. This polyvalent nature is explored by the writer when Prospero first confronts Ferdinand. As he accuses him of lying and having ulterior motives, a form of irony can soon be distinguished in his speech : Prospero is the one plotting and having other intentions. As well, a shift in the tone going from protective to a mischievous tone only accentuates the writer’s point. Therefore, that is why Caliban’s only desire is to « burn but his books ». Destroying his books, symbol of Prospero’s unlimited knowledge, means completely annihilating his power and influence. Additionally, the alliteration of the « b » sound pronounced by Caliban only enhances the necessity of stopping Prospero. Thus, Shakespeare conveys through several characters and a specific diction the various forms that knowledge can take ; it is a mean to establish one supremacy, to dominate, to control, but also to evolve.
Even though the playwright draws a dangerous perspective on the use of knowledge, the end of the play concludes that it is also what allows us to grow and to redeem ourselves from our sins. Through a nostalgic tone, Prospero delivers a hypnotizing monologue on the great things knowledge endowed him to perform. After manipulating « the mutinous winds » and much more, the sorcerer chooses to become a mere human and « break [his] staff » or « burn [his] books ». By using such aggressive terms, the writer demonstrates that to abandon such a precious thing as knowledge, one must make it definitive. This belief is strengthened by the consonance of the letter « d ». Through this precise plosive and harsh sound, Shakespeare emphasizes the finality of his character’s decision. Now that he has definitely refused to continue to use knowledge as a mean to obtain control, it can become a tool for progress and evolution. All in all, in his final play, the playwright digs on the power of knowledge and writing. On the surface, it is only a way to differentiate one from another. Quickly, the author deconstructs this shallows belief and issues a strong message. By relativizing its dangerous nature, Shakespeare warns us on the tendency of humankind to use knowledge to gain power when it is in reality a means to elevate ourselves spiritually. Thus, humanity must never abandon its thirst of knowledge to continue to evolve towards a better path.
If Shakespeare explores the importance of knowledge and how men must resist the temptation of evil, Atwood conveys a different perspective of it : she delves into the removal of any form of knowledge and how it deeply affects an individual. By being a stream of consciousness, the dystopian novel immediately drives us in the narrator’s vision and her limited knowledge. The reader is able to exchange places with Offred, the main character, and shares her feeling of frustration, of desperation, of a quest for answers. We could ask ourselves what is life without knowledge ? How can a person construct the purpose and motives erecting his life without answer ? It is simply impossible and, consequently, an individual will have to blindly follow the limited answer that society provides him. Atwood, as a brilliant writer, is more than fully aware of this matter. To demonstrate this growing issue she, as a puppeteer, exploits the character of Offred and the dictatorship that is Gilead.
The complete removal of any way of reflecting is the safest way to submit a population into obedience. Gilead not only deprives his society’s members of knowledge, the regime alters their previous instruction. By reconstructing their perception, the inhabitant’s mind can accept with more ‘ease’ the new reality they are confronted with. To keep her sanity, Offred can only accept what is happening, she even convinces herself that « where I am is not a prison but a privilege, as Aunt Lydia said ». Through the use of a detached and numb tone, the Canadian writer quickly demonstrates how an individual, when deprived of any form of knowledge, has to dissociate themselves from who they truly are. The recurrent shift between the past and the present throughout the novel is the embodiment of her desire to apply her previous knowledge to her new meaningless reality. Furthermore, the fact that she quotes someone else illustrates further that what she is trying to think is not her original thought : it is a new knowledge that a new society is trying to implement.
Gilead, by both removing past knowledge and producing a new one, ensures his place and running. Offred, tattooed on the ankle, is now « a national resource », not an individual. By using an official vocabulary that ignores and warps reality in order to serve the needs of the new society’s elite, Gilead maintains control. To illustrate this, Atwood develops numerous instances of the dangerous aspect of knowledge and language. Thus, Women are defined solely by their gender roles as Wives, Marthas, or Handmaids. Denoted by the terms « unwomen » and « unbabies », feminists and deformed babies are treated as subhuman. The new language is a tool for power. For instance, if the prescribed greetings for personal encounters are not done properly, it appears as a sign of disloyalty. Simply, by modifying common tasks such as small talk, an individual transforms his general perception and knowledge of what life is supposed to be. Similarly, the creation of new terms such as « Salvagings » and « Particicutions » institutionalized further this new knowledge. Thus, Atwood explores the connection between a state’s repression of its subjects and its perversion of language and knowledge.
All in all, Atwood’s work can be subject to many interpretations given that it is a reconstruction. As an unreliable character, Offred is gradually being brainwashed and heading towards the path of submission. Hence, how can the reader’s assumptions be certain ? It simply cannot. Our knowledge is tangible, reconstructed, and dangerous in its own way. Used as a tool by totalitarian regimes to assert their control on a population, Atwood teaches us that knowledge is to always be questioned and re-interpreted.
To conclude, both works approach the theme of knowledge and the danger that can live in its shadow. Submitting different interpretations on the matter, Shakespeare insists on the place that society gives to knowledge as an element of differentiation whereas Atwood delves us into a universe where the reader himself is deprived of any knowledge. She never lets us forget that her work is a construct, and that our interpretation as readers makes us part of that construction. The Handmaid’s Tale’s author mostly explores the terrible power of knowledge when it is manipulated. As the playwright creates a character that uses it as a tool for power, we could argue that the two works display the different actors of knowledge. The dystopian novel both culminates with the actors and subjects of manipulation, with paying special attention to the subjects, whilst The Tempest does the exact opposite. Ultimately, both warn us on knowledge ; if used with ulterior motives, one should not put his full trust on it. This is why it must always be subject to interpretation and question. However, Shakespeare reminds us of the beauty of knowledge, it is not only what makes us human but what makes us grow. Knowledge, as dangerous as it can be, is the light guiding humankind through difficult times.
ASSESSMENT RUBRIC FOR OIB AMERICAN OPTION WRITTEN EXAMINATION: ESSAY
N.B. A short response may require assessment to be lowered.
-0.5 or more at the discretion of the examiner
|Level 0||Level 1
|Knowledge & Understanding||No true understanding or first-hand knowledge shown. Factual inaccuracies void argument.||Some understanding but superficial. Learned response replaces
first-hand knowledge. Factual inaccuracies affect argument.
|Satisfactory understanding and knowledge. Development may be limited with some inadvertent or minor factual inaccuracies.||Good overall understanding.
Knowledge is full and developed.
|Very good and thorough understanding, including some subtlety. Levels of meaning are apparent.||Excellent understanding, including some subtlety. Levels of meaning are apparent. Detailed and pertinent knowledge.|
|Off-subject or no clear response discernible. Observation, commentary or opinion may be present but no attempt to form an argument.||Response is partial or muddled. Argument is directed at the question but may be confused or superficial.||A satisfactory response to the main implications of the question. Some aspects of the question may be ignored.||A good response. Argument addresses the question but may need more development.||A very good response. Argument is complete and well-targeted,
and the question is well-understood.
|An excellent response. Argument demonstrates original thought and addresses the question with clarity and depth.|
(Includes discussion of style at Level 2 and above)
|Plot summary or generalizations dominate. No successful attempt at analysis.||Plot summary or generalizations frequent. Little or unsuccessful analysis.||Inconsistent analysis that does not always address important elements.
Analysis may be uneven or lacking in depth.
|Good analysis that appropriately addresses important elements. Generally appropriate analysis of style illustrated by relevant examples.||Very good analysis. Thoughtful, pertinent analysis of style.||Excellent analysis
and argumentation. Insightful,
coherent analysis of style.
of the Essay
|No logical sequence of ideas. Chronological confusion. Development is so inadequate that clarity is in danger of dissolving completely.||Weak or mechanical structure. Development is barely adequate and examples are either impertinent or lack clear connection to the argument.||Satisfactory structure and development. Sequence of ideas generally logical. Examples not always pertinent and integration may be awkward.||Good structure with some transitions. Sequence of ideas logical. Examples are generally pertinent and most often integrated appropriately.||Very good essay structure with solid transitions. Clear development throughout and good integration of supporting evidence.||Excellent essay structure with clear transitions. Carefully planned, persuasive development throughout. Sophisticated integration of supporting evidence.|
|Expression||Meaning often cannot be surmised. The essay is very difficult to read.||Prose can be read and
its meaning surmised even if hampered by weak control (or French interference).
|Prose conveys the writer’s ideas adequately. Vocabulary is sufficient and notions of good English usage are evident if sometimes inconsistently applied.||Prose shows evidence of good writing skills. Lapses are minor and do not impede understanding. Some care is shown in word choice and register.||Prose is clear and coherent. A rare lapse does not mar ideas or flow. Effective use of vocabulary and register.||Prose is articulate,
fluid, and displays an excellent command of written language. Sophisticated use of vocabulary and register.