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.