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Education as Collateral Damage in the War against Experts

My main reason for posting on this topic is to make sure everyone in the world sees Tom Nichols’s post at The Federalist titled “The Death of Expertise.” Click over and read it–it’s not a tl;dr piece–because I think the topic indicates one of the most important cultural conversations we’re not having right now.

I love the whole essay, but School of Doubters may want to pay particular attention to this devastating portrait of the effect of anti-expert sentiment on education:

Universities, without doubt, have to own some of this mess. The idea of telling students that professors run the show and know better than they do strikes many students as something like uppity lip from the help, and so many profs don’t do it. (One of the greatest teachers I ever had, James Schall, once wrote many years ago that “students have obligations to teachers,” including “trust, docility, effort, and thinking,” an assertion that would produce howls of outrage from the entitled generations roaming campuses today.) As a result, many academic departments are boutiques, in which the professors are expected to be something like intellectual valets. This produces nothing but a delusion of intellectual adequacy in children who should be instructed, not catered to.

Ouch. Demanding deference from others isn’t a natural tendency for me; I have never managed to pull off a stern countenance in the classroom, or anywhere else, really. (My teenage son has been known to complain, “You’re too happy.”) I do set rules for my classes, though, and with rare, appropriate exceptions, I hold them. For the most part, students respect that, and even when they ask for accommodation they don’t expect it and don’t get angry when it’s not granted. But, disclaimers aside, I totally recognize what Nichols describes here. This attitude does exist, for students, parents, legislators, administrators, community members–even, sometimes, teachers. A colleague said to me, in all seriousness, less than a week ago: “Well, the students are our customers.”

Are students customers and instructors the paid “help”? I would argue that Nichols isolates the precise reason this question is so fraught: Students pay money, but while in the shop we boss them, not the other way around. It’s a little like paying to be dominated, but by people who usually aren’t all that sexy, Rate My Professor chili peppers notwithstanding.

Most of us characterize this power struggle between teacher and student as the result of education’s continued move toward the “business model,” but Nichols’s observation teases out more strands in the web of effects that the market template can produce. It’s one thing to make education services all-access, but hyper-democratizing knowledge means my Ph.D. in British literature no longer gives me any right to assign a low grade to a paper that demonstrates no understanding of its subject as per 100+ years of scholarly conversation and my own years of graduate training, because the student’s reading of The Prelude is just as valid as any of that elitist crap.

This is a fine line we walk, in trying to convince students that expertise matters while also encouraging them not to give up on themselves. When I teach freshman writing, I find myself telling frustrated students, “Look, you may never feel great at this, but you can get better.” And I do want to help them gain confidence. But there’s the confidence that informs our desire to apply our abilities to acquiring more knowledge, and then there’s the confidence Nichols exposes, a kind of arrogance that demands to be accepted as is, no alterations needed. As educators, we face a constant struggle to perform an end run around the latter before we can nurture the former.

Dedicated to the memory of Russell Johnson, aka “The Professor.” You were my favorite castaway because you were so smart. R.I.P.

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DrShell is an Associate Professor of English at a small liberal arts college. She teaches world literature, composition, popular culture, and speculative fiction and serves as faculty sponsor for the Secular Student Alliance. DrShell lives in tame suburbia with her husband and son and a pack of rescued pets, where she spends a lot of time running, taking Body Pump classes, and thinking about getting another tattoo.


  1. January 27, 2014 at 10:16 am —

    I don’t really care for that article. It reads like someone who is feeling peevish about the loss of privilege, like “why doesn’t the riffraff just leave things to people who know best?”. I have definitely faced the “students are our customers” ethic, principals and managers who clearly attempted to adopt Ken Lay flavored charismatic leadership, charter schools led by business majors who got phDs in education from diploma mills, the advent of entirely new and therefore unlicensed and unlicensable types of therapists who charge vulnerable families 100s of dollars per hour for services, etc. However, if you are in a job, and a profession is a job, in which your recommendations will have a material impact on someone’s life, then they should question you and you should be accountable for your opinion. And. it is very likely that your opinion will be influenced by self-interest in ways you do not recognize. I have found that it is actually very important to listen to people who do not regard me as all that in my field, though this is often quite painful for my delicate speech pathologist ego.

  2. February 3, 2014 at 12:17 pm —

    Most of the article seems reasonable, but, yes, that quoted section is very bothersome. Believe me, I’ve treated every instructor I’ve had thus far with respect, but there were some I wouldn’t trust with a bit of string.

    In particular, I have not-so-fond memories of a literature instructor I had for a class on short story as a genre. It became apparent very quickly that he didn’t actually read any of the homework he assigned. All of his lectures (each about 10 to 15 minutes) was about genre in general, but nothing specific to short story was ever said. I rather suspect it was so that he could give the same lectures to his two other genre classes without any alterations. He also had a habit of randomly changing the reading schedule, which was odd, because his lecture never pertained to the reading anyway. Only student presentations (which took up the 35 minutes of class where he wasn’t lecturing, generally) pertained to the reading, meaning that the schedule was arbitrary anyway (and the constant changes meant you couldn’t get work done in advance, or prepare presentations more than a day before giving them).

    I never did make an official complaint, because I never had any proof of anything, and he had tenure. Though the fact that he had us turn in our assignments in packets, complete with cover sheets on how many A, B, and C level assignments we’d done, and a sample of our “best writing” from the assignments was very suspect. He even had us work out what percentage of our assignments had been the A level, B level, or C level ones. Basically his approach to class was to do nothing for over half of the lecture time, and grade the assignments off the cover sheet, as far as I can tell.

    So, yeah, not all instructors are inherently deserving of trust. Though I did remain respectful and polite to him, because I’m not an idiot. I’m not sure he ever realised how much I loathed him. (I’ve had several instructors I’ve disliked as instructors. He’s one of only two I’ve ever disliked as a person.)

    On the flip side of that though, some of the best instructors I’ve ever had were the ones that challenged the students, instead of spoon feeding them answers. One instructor, on the first day, would have all the students tap the hand of the person next to them, in sequence, and time how long it took for the wave of hand touching to propagate to the back of the room. Then he had them do it again with tapping the neck. He’d have students make a reasonable estimate of the difference between the distance between the hand and the brain, and the neck and the brain. With that information in hand, he told us to estimate the speed that a signal propagates through a neuron.

    … And he refused to tell anyone the answer until someone came up with it themselves.

    Almost every class was like that. Though usually without so much having to touch people. He’d present us with some sort of problem. An optical illusion, or question about how the brain is able to do something or another. He’d give us whatever relevant information that wasn’t in the book, tell us we had the information we needed to come up with an answer, and let us do it.

    He was one of the only instructors to use written tests instead of scantron. The last section on any test was to pick one of any three critical thinking questions (Comparing the relative benefits and drawbacks of two studies, for example), and answer them.

    Everyone else HATED that guy, because it was one of the few classes that required you to not only know the material, but be able to think about, and apply the material.

    That, in my mind, is the best sort of instructor. Students should always be able to ask questions of their instructors, but I think instructors should ask questions of their students just as often. I had a literature instructor who was the same way. He rarely gave interpretations of what was read. He pointed out things of interest and asked us what it meant. He wasn’t hesitant to point out flaws in someone’s interpretation either. It wasn’t that any interpretation was valid. If it didn’t make sense in the context, or was wrong for historical reasons, he’d say it. But you still had to look at the material, think about it, and work things out for yourself.

  3. February 3, 2014 at 6:28 pm —

    Especially in a university context I’d hope the instructors know what they are teaching better than the students. Like Mankoi, I have fond memories of teachers who challenged me and a lingering dislike for some of the idiots I had to put up with,

    In broader society this is one aspect of the tension between democracy and technocracy. The core of democracy is exactly that every voter’s opinion has the same value. But outside of the very specific case that every subject of a country should be entitled to a say in their government, I don’t think the idea has merit. Even then, we’ve established fairly well that representative government works better than plebescite government (ie, you vote for an expert to make decisions on your behalf, not on the actual decisions). Phrasing it deliberately as a right to be heard in decisions that affect you, but not a right to rule, is, I think, important. Because that makes it clear that there are very good reasons why the will-o-the-people should not be the only determinant.

    Personally, I am a big fan of expert-ness. I don’t have the time or inclination to learn eough to make informed decisions about everything. The fantasies of economists are the examplar of this problem, but it’s also seen every time I’m part of a group doing anything. People all want to have a say on every little thing, even when (especially when) they have no what they’re talking about. 99% of it doesn’t matter, it’d be easier and just as effective to let the people doing the work make the little decisions, from what sort of tea to provide at meetings to the format of post-meeting emails. I actively want not to be involved in those decisions. I want someone who cares deeply to apply their expertise and make a decision, because almost always their first guess will be better than my considered decision in an area I know little about.

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