Tag Archives: Tom Nichols

Who Knows What?

Nobody likes to have their shortcomings pointed out. I suspect that’s why many people might find Tom Nichols’ The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters a little uncomfortable. Nichols doesn’t pull any punches. Nor does he claim to be an expert on everything. What he does claim, however, is very important. He shows how America has taken a distinctly hostile attitude toward experts and specialists. Somewhere along the line hoi polloi began to mistake everyone has a right to their opinions for “everyone has the right to be an expert on what they express in those opinions.” This isn’t a new problem, but there’s no doubt that the Internet has exacerbated it. We’ve got people arrogant of their lack of training claiming alternative facts that are “just as good as” established facts. One of them resides in the White House. There’s no arrogance in claiming you have extensive, highly specialized training if you do. It’s a simple, non-alternative, fact.

A perfect book for our times, The Death of Expertise should be—must be—widely read. It’s not likely to change the minds of those who’ve already decided that with the Internet giving them a voice they’ve become the gurus of a new generation of the “Know Nothing Party.” The rest of us, however, should read and ponder. Nichols doesn’t shield himself in his ivory tower—he admits there’s plenty that he doesn’t know. He’s not shy, however, in saying he’s an expert on what he does know. I remember when facts used to stand for something. Winning at Trivial Pursuit was a matter of pride. Now everyone’s a contestant on Jeopardy and Alex Trebek has taken the express train home. All answers are right, for all people are experts. Seems like we have a surplus economy in arrogance these days. And that surplus just keeps growing.

An area where Nichols isn’t an expert is religious studies. He wouldn’t claim he is. I did find it interesting, however, that when he wants to make some of his strongest points he quotes C. S. Lewis. Any evangelicals out there should read The Screwtape Letters again and check what Nichols says. Lewis would not have been a Trump supporter. Not by a long shot. And he uses the word “ass” in his books, even when he’s not referring to literal donkeys. He may have been onto something. We have an anti-expert president who has appointed anti-experts at the head of major government agencies. He anti-expertly launches missiles at Syria illegally. C. S. Lewis was an expert Anglican. 45 may be an expert of the sort Lewis wasn’t afraid to name. We need to be educated. Read Nichols and give our nation a fighting chance. There’s always more to learn.

Horse Sense

In an article in last month’s Federalist, Tom Nichols lamented the death of expertise. Well, not exactly. Expertise is not so much dead as lost in the wash. In the days of internet reality, it is difficult not to feel an expert after half an hour on Wikipedia and with a glance at a few headlines. What concerns Nichols, however, is that those who have done the hard work of going through educational programs and heavy research to learn materials minutely and intimately, are no longer considered any more qualified to speak the truth about their subject than anyone else. The web is full of self-proclaimed experts, and even I was always a little alarmed at student papers that took online resources at face value (I warned students about us bloggers). We have truly entered democracy—intellectual democracy—and it is scarier than anyone might have imagined.

I’m not a snob. I grew up in a blue collar home and I generally trust blue collar people more than my more educated colleagues. In the working class, at least in my experience, if someone intends to harm you there is usually some warning shot fired across your bow. In the world of business and finance the unseen and surgical strike is carried out with far more finesse. Experts can make brutally efficient killers. It was only after years and thousands of dollars I had not yet earned that I could claim to be an expert on ancient religion. From the first day in the classroom (particularly at Nashotah House) I found myself face-to-face with self-acknowledged experts who put up with my instruction only by dint of ecclesiastical command. Being an expert meant I was to be mistrusted. I was the one who might lead astray. The internet was already out there, but it was only lurking in the background. In religion, expertise had been dead long before Jesus showed up on the scene.

The problem with religion is that nobody can have the whole truth. I used to show my students a photograph of the silhouette of a horse against a sunset/sunrise. You can’t tell which way the horse is facing—toward the camera or away. When I asked them which way the beast faced, some would say away, but most said, predictably, towards them. Then I would reveal that not one of us in the room knew the answer. Religion is like that. The photographer who stood near the horse knows, but the person behind the camera may as well be in heaven for all it helps us. I was an expert because I’d spent years learning arcane languages and looking at texts in as close to the original format as we had available. All I had learned is that no one knows the direction that horse is facing. Tom Nichols is right: we face a crisis of expertise. But for me the only source of truth may be found astride a noble steed.

Photo credit: Waugsberg, WikiCommons

Photo credit: Waugsberg, WikiCommons