A primary role of education is to give students the skill and wisdom to know how to gain knowledge. A key element of that process for centuries has been the reliance on experts who have invested enormous time, money, and intellectual resources in gaining knowledge and understanding that is deeper, more detailed, and often more nuanced than that of non-experts. We may not always agree with experts; we may question their data or the conclusions they draw; and we are free to interpret their expertise alongside other sources of information and ideas that we value. But the critical role that expertise has played in the rise of human civilization, and particularly democratic institutions, of which education is one of the foundational piers, is indisputable.
There is increasing concern from across the political spectrum that experts and expertise are under threat. To be blunt, a significant segment of American (and likely other) society, mostly on the distal but powerful margins of the political spectrum, has replaced principled disagreement with the rejection of reality. Rather than proving a point based on facts, they just make stuff up.
Tom Nichols is a respected author, professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, and an adjunct professor in the Harvard Extension School. Writing in The Federalist, Nichols says that highly vocal and politically potent groups of Americans increasingly decry almost any evidence-based argument coming from “elitist” experts when such expertise is contrary to their political or social viewpoint. When observable and demonstrable facts are subject to intentional manipulation, experts, who we have have relied on for centuries to help us all make informed decisions, may become an endangered species. The foundation of our democracy, says Nichols,
…denotes a system of government, not an actual state of equality. It means that we enjoy equal rights versus the government, and in relation to each other. Having equal rights does not mean having equal talents, equal abilities, or equal knowledge. It assuredly does not mean that everyone’s opinion about anything is as good as anyone else’s.
Experts are not infallible, but they are vastly more accurate at describing the realities of the world around us than are lay people. The weather is fickle, the stock market is unpredictable, the movement of armies and economies are complex, favored sports teams do not always win, and new inventions, medical procedures, and businesses often fail despite the best efforts of entire teams of the best experts on the planet. Experts even change their minds; what they told us one year about cancer screenings or cholesterol is reversed another year based on a study about which not all experts agree. This frustrates us. If they are experts shouldn’t they get it right? But this demonstrates perhaps the most important difference between experts and those who want to cast them out or diminish their authority: real experts are smart enough to know they are not always right, and diligent enough to know how to get closer to “right” the next time. Those who decry the value of expertise because they don’t agree with or want to hear the conclusions, are not.
The dangers of discarding expertise reach every person on the planet. We risk slipping back into a Dark Age where those with political or social power control what we know and think, untested by science or scrutiny, unaltered by actual facts. Because we disagree about how those facts might be used, the anti-expert factions claim they do not exist. Nichols says that marks the point at which
everyone becomes an expert on everything. Take but one horrifying example, we live today in an advanced post-industrial country that is now fighting a resurgence of whooping cough — a scourge nearly eliminated a century ago — merely because otherwise intelligent people have been second-guessing their doctors and refusing to vaccinate their kids after reading stuff written by people who know exactly zip about medicine.
What Nichols warns of as the current “death of expertise” is a rejection of one of the key functions of education. The role of expertise is one of the really big, perhaps even existential challenges, for educators going forward. It forces us to ask and perhaps redefine the boundary between pressing a teacher’s “political” views on students, and encouraging, or in fact insisting, that students investigate ideas and content to the degree that they can discriminate between expert, authoritative sources and unsubstantiated personal viewpoints. Should this boundary be up to the individual teacher? The school? Parents, The district? The government state house? The loudest attendees at the school board meeting?
In my view, we simply cannot allow education to fall into the trap that somehow facts are mutable and experts are no less “expert” than anyone with access to a blog or a social media megaphone. It is up to us as educators to teach our students the value of expertise, and how to find and learn from experts who provide that value, even, and perhaps particularly, when the expert opinions run contrary to our own, less-expert worldview. As educators, we should be helping our students to frame the big challenges they might face in the years ahead, and giving them the tools to succeed in those challenges. They need baseline knowledge to understand the difference between the fiction of political rhetoric and the realities of a complex world. As Nichols argues:
…every discussion must take place within limits and above a certain baseline of competence. And competence is sorely lacking in the public arena. People with strong views on going to war in other countries can barely find their own nation on a map; people who want to punish Congress for this or that law can’t name their own member of the House.
These, then, begin to form a measurable rubric by which educators should continue to help their students to find and wear the mantle of enlightened learning in these tumultuous times. Are our students capable of forming and defending an argument with baseline knowledge of both or many sides? Do they know basic facts of history, geography, economics, law, and science that intersect with recent news? Are they capable and willing to enter into discourse, not to win a debate, but to learn and inform? Can they find and separate expertise from loud, uninformed banter? If so, then they have the tools to gain value from experts. If not, then their future is, as Nichols says, “endangered by the utterly illogical insistence that every opinion should have equal weight.”