This may be the most difficult column I have written. At first glance it may look as though it goes against many things I have written in the past, and contradicts what I did for some 34 years. I hope you will read through to the end and realize that far from contradicting that career it just reaffirms what I believed and what I taught all those years.
I was struck by the contradictions of what an education, a high school diploma, a college degree and an advanced degree used to mean with what they mean today while I was reading a book titled “The Death of Expertise,” by Tom Nichols. Nichols is a professor at the U.S. Naval War College and an adjunct professor at the Harvard Extension School.
A chapter titled “Higher Education ... The Customer is Always Right” begins with a quote from Thomas Jefferson. “Those persons whom nature has endowed with genius and virtue should be rendered by liberal education worthy to receive and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens.” In other words, to govern.
Nichols then opens the chapter with the following: “Higher education’s supposed to cure us of the false belief that everybody is as smart as everyone else. Unfortunately, in the twenty-first century the effect of widespread college attendance is just the opposite: the great number of people who have been in or near a college think of themselves as the educated peers of even the most accomplished scholars and experts.”
No, most of us do not know as much as scholars and experts. When too many of us think we are experts, it dilutes the meaning of expertise. And whether that expertise is in repairing the brakes on a truck, digging a ditch with a backhoe, wiring a three-way switch, laying rows of blocks in a straight wall or performing open-heart surgery, we depend on experts and their expertise to get the jobs done.
In fact, it is really an educated person who knows what he does not know. I know I can trim and plant a fruit tree, but when it comes to wiring a three-way switch I call an electrical (expert) like Dana who does things like that every day. When I need to dig a straight ditch with a slight slope I call Darryl. Paul knows how to fix just about everything under a car or truck. The sign in his shop says, “You don’t pay for my time; you pay for what I know.”
There is a reason, an attorney friend once told me, for saying that attorneys “practice” law. It is because each case they take is different, each jury is unique, every judge distinct. An attorney, Bob said, learns to practice what he or she has learned and apply it to each situation. That is expertise based on education.
But our current education system is failing us.
We have allowed people who know little or nothing about what education is about to set the policies that guide our schools. All too many have bought into the idea that better technology means better education, that more computers mean more learning. That whiz-bang technology will make poor teachers better. They have replaced real learning with having fun in the classroom every day.
Schools have promoted the idea that “everyone” should go to college. They should not. Admitting people who are neither prepared nor capable of doing college level work merely dilutes and degrades a college degree. The people I mentioned earlier did not learn to run a backhoe or fix a car or gain their expertise in college.
So why do technical schools so often contend that they prepare students for college?
Things like reading X-rays, arguing a case in court and placing a man on the moon undoubtedly require not only a college education but years of experience. They require the expertise that only comes with learning from other experts, taking what they know and building on it with more experience and practice.
And they require all of us to know the difference between an expert and a fool.
My father finished eighth grade and then went to work. That was about 1915. As an adult he studied and passed the test that qualified him as a “fire boss” in the coal mines where he worked. At that time most children did not go much longer than the eighth grade, but everyone seemed to know the difference between an expert and a fool.
In my small school system we called one of our teachers “Professor” Johnson.
Everyone in town called him “Professor.” He was an educated man and he was determined that the young people in his school would also be educated.
They would respect the ideas of education, they would know Shakespeare and the Periodic Table. They would know what it meant to be a good citizen. They would respect America (he played “Taps” on his baritone horn on every national holiday.)
He knew not everyone would, or should, go to college, but he was determined that above all else, we would be prepared to be good citizens.
Those days may be gone but that is not to say they cannot be restored. For our nation to continue, those ideals must be restored. To survive, we must not allow expertise to die.