The Expert

Western culture has valorised the ‘expert’ for a long time. You could say the West specialises in expertise – and it is proud of such a profile. Besides, it does it well.

Specialisation is everywhere, not merely as the dominant feature of medicine – where I sense modern Australia first used the distinction between ‘generalist’ and ‘specialist’. Today there are few ‘generalists’ left specialising – anywhere. The entire workplace, from the most manual to the most cerebral, operates on a complex ‘division of labour’. It is even said that the “IT industry is no longer an (one) industry; within the last several years it has been filleted, segmented, into numerous, self-referring specialisations, with little intercourse between the various fiefdoms.

Accordingly, education becomes narrower as it advances into the tertiary and beyond. Sir Ken Robinson, the respected and feared controversial critic of British education argued several years ago that existing education clearly serves one goal only: to produce the next generation of university professors. But be clear what he is saying: it is not that education simply aims, in an elitist manner, to produce more experts on classical Greek verse in the second century BC, or more authorities on seventeenth century corn production in south-west Italy. What he is saying is that current education (without articulating it) aims to train future teacher-advocates at the highest tertiary level in whatever pure demarcated specialisations society may produce.

Subject matter may vary and change unbelievably widely – but what is being taught under whatever subject-rubric it is labelled is akin to a ‘global algebra’ – “algebra is that part of mathematics which investigates the relations and properties of numbers by means of general symbols” (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary). Education has become a symbolic activity – geared unwittingly, self-deceptively, to produce nothing but experts in expertise. It applies fittingly to everything in its increasing diversification and isolation, as it moulds everyone into a common but lonely oneness.

Let’s illustrate.

As the twenty first century begins, ‘tourism’ for example has become a significant sector of life and work. It is accordingly yet another selective component of tertiary education around the globe. And accordingly again it, in its relative smallness, is further divided into smaller and manageable parts (I quote from the handbook of one typical Australian university): its subject matter at the undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate research level is divided into three areas of knowledge: Tourism Management, Hotel Management and Event Management.

The Department of Tourism at that university advertises its many memberships. These include UNWTO, I-CHRIE, ANZALS, QTIC, TTF, CAUTHE, ATLAS, and THE-ICE (to save space I will translate only the last – “The International Centre of Excellence in Tourism and Hospitality Education”). The future acme of learning: ‘Excellence in Bare Nothing’.

Each of us is expected to do one thing only, expertly, and nothing else: a special form of ‘trained incapacity’. Appropriately we can do nothing else – we have never been encouraged to, trained to. Modern society cannot tolerate dilettantes. The admired ‘Jack of all trades’ died with the advent of the first machine. Like all mechanical tools we can fit only one thing, do only one task. We all are now simply a ‘fitting tool’.

And the results?

A society of experts militates against the notion of a ‘community’: it has little to share; little cause to empathise; little experience of compassion; little chance to step outside ourselves. Such an atomised society has to be conservative. Such a society has no sustained interest in ideology, in politics, in working towards a better future; it is content with the administration of things – to make the present situation a more efficient machine. It reacts, that is it becomes agitated, only ad hoc against any issue which is not immediately rewarding to a special interest.

Such a society thinks within more and more narrow boundaries; it has little motivation or imagination to think beyond the present: the new, the fresh, the different. Rather it nurtures a growing intolerance for anything uncommon, or critical. More ideas, more new ideas, new questions are angrily dismissed as utopian, mad, destructive, divisive, unreal. Its spokesmen, its leaders, its politicians will become smaller and smaller human ‘units’. It will slowly, eventually atrophy as it has little talent, established structure, or sense of big questions, bold challenges, creative ways of handling matters. And no solidarity, no expressive bonds, no communal purpose, no passion for others or other things.

Can we change matters, can we grow bigger, can we dream of a better, richer life? Can we wander, stray, become impatient with the present atomised life? Is there an alternative, interactive and interdependent means of living together possible?

I smile warmly yet sadly each time I re-read the words of Maryanne Wolf in her book, Proust and the Squid, when she says

“Children who never have a story read to them, who never hear words that rhyme, who never imagine fighting with dragons or marrying a prince, have the odds overwhelmingly against them”.

Modern society has been deprived of such treasured beginnings – and follow-ups; otherwise the global demand for universal expertise would have been dismissed as impoverished, unenlightened, boring and fruitless. And we all would be thrilled by being surrounded by curious, imaginative, bold thinkers ready to leap the boundaries keeping the myriad experts apart, each huddled in its narrow trench.

‘The Expert’ is posted on both www.melbournecentreforideas.com and

http://melbournecentreforideas.posterous.com

Don Miller
28-02-2012

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‘Asian Wisdom’

Edward Said, the impressive Palestinian born American scholar and author of Orientalism, a book of enormous global influence, described the way the western world, in particular its scholars, unconsciously interprets the non-western world.

Essentially it sees that non-western world as if it were one: that is as if China and Japan and India and Iran and Malaysia were homogeneously the same. As well, the attributes of this false unity are taken to be inferior in all ways to that of the West. Instead of the west’s rational secularism, the other is irrationally religious; instead of healthy individualism it is unhealthily communal and collectivist; and instead of an inclination towards a responsible guilt it is shame directed to saving-face. It is in other words the strange Other – and they (the many nations involved) are all the same Other. ‘Orientalism’ is Said’s word for an extreme form of unrelenting, demeaning stereotyping.

Said went on to suggest that a secondary Orientalism also exists – among a minority of westerners. It is found among those liberal and tolerant people who, often out of curiosity with the ‘other’ or/and a certain disenchantment with the West, see the non-western world in rose-tinted mono-focal glasses.

Once again the non-western world is homogenised and made singular. But this time its uniform quality is one of goodness, contentment, wisdom – and implicitly, dramatically, contrasting it to the West (The God that Failed). No longer demeaning them, we simply deify them.

To talk of ‘Asian Wisdom’ is a perfect example of the more decent form of Orientalism. We need to move on. The countries of Asia are distinctly different from each other: economically, politically, culturally. In no way is India, for example, China; nor is China Japan. We need rigour in comparing and contrasting them; and we need honestly with ourselves: in avoiding projecting our disappointments with the western world on to uncritical adulation of all those beyond the western shores.

And we need to be chary with the language we use: ‘wisdom’ is a strong word (it is of course also a word full of ambiguity; that is no special problem here – all conceptual words, and beyond, are ambiguous). Which bit of India for example do we find ‘wise’? Don’t all cultures – east and west – have different bits of wisdom? Do any have a wisdom that pervades and shapes all other aspects of the culture? I think not. Further, for every bit of wisdom found in a culture, bits of folly, conceit, foolishness, idiocy, crassness, denseness and recklessness(and worse) can also be found.

And we need always to make two significant distinctions – whichever culture we are considering. Is for example the Confucianism of China we may admire that of its teachings or that of its practice, that of its early form or that of its current quality? Or is it only part of its quality that we find so admirable and other parts we ought admit being quite distasteful?

Or have we made an error of unwittingly putting together into some idealized imagined culture one good bit from each of several Asian cultures; together the mythic splendour dazzling us.

In the past the west have learned a lot from the east (although rarely acknowledged), and I have no doubt we will continue to learn more and new things from different Asian cultures in the future. Already it seems that Australia could profitably learn from certain current Chinese educational practice.

We can be judicious, respectful and grateful in what we see and admire and learn from, without being hyperbolic about the nature of the gift we have taken.

Don Miller

22-02-2012

PS. This topic would be an excellent one to stimulate an extended discussion on these pages.

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Class: language reveals and conceals

The word ‘class’ has declined in usage in Australia over the years, but most Australians I suspect would have a classification loosely in mind: the upper class, and if not, the upper middle class; then there would be the middle class, or in certain contexts it would be broken down into the professional class and the business class. Then there is the working class, and maybe the lower working class or the poor. In other words, the common belief is of some form of a hierarchical ‘class system’.

In England the relevant language is more complex and certainly more pronounced – England being generally recognised as an extremely class conscious culture. From the top there probably would be seen a descending order from the aristocracy, landed aristocracy, the landed gentry and the urban upper class, middle class, lower middle class, upper working class, and lower working class.

America provides the great contrast. From its origins as a white settlement it has always, most consciously, identified itself, as Exceptional – in all ways – distinct from Europe’s tradition-bound social hierarchies. And this, uniquely God-given and blessed. And because the land being so fertile and open/available to all newcomers ( the eradication or domestication of the native Indians was taken for granted), there existed a unique situation – a perfect opportunity for every person to make his mark. An equality in potential. This all embracing exceptionalism has driven the entire history of the USA – for good, as Americans naturally insist and culturally impose (any other consideration being akin to national heresy). For bad, as others would feel obliged to say.

I have done no careful survey of the speeches/texts of the current presidential Primaries campaign, but I have been struck in sensing my expectations are sound.

The very word ‘class’ is still a dishonorable word in America. More than one Republican Congressman has attacked Obama for introducing ‘class-war’ into American politics when he has talked of taxing the ‘very rich’. The idea is considered unAmerican and its very mention was a risky thing for Obana to do. The idea of ‘redistribution’ of wealth is also anathema: offensive and unneeded. When Obama attempted (not that vigorously) to introduce a new Health policy two years ago, a policy that would have marginally helped the very poor, a common response from ‘middle America’ was “ I don’t object to the poor having better health care, but my God I’m not giving them any of my money towards that”.

Consistent with that entrenched cultural position, the language available to describe American society is extremely narrow – and quite vague. All America seems composed of one broad mass – ‘the American middle class/ middle classes’. Above them is ‘the very rich’ – to most people a badge of success. That optimistic image has received more attention and criticism in the past few years than it has for a long time. The language of the recent ‘occupation’ movement’ is dramatically new. Then there is something below ‘the middle class’ – the ‘poor’ – again getting more attention now than anytime since the Depression of 1930.

There is an old joke till circulating which announces the results of some survey akin to “there are 80% above average’. The parallel here is ‘we Americans are all middle class”, that is, we are all pretty equal; there are no classes and no class system in America.

There is a second, parallel linguistic system operating buttressing and policing the above. It is the description of political positions. The dominant schema for a long time has been a simple two-part division between ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’. A fringe, ‘mad lefty’, was deemed irrelevant. And, at the moment, some concede a ‘mad rightwing’ which is also irrelevant and already allegedly disappearing.

Between the two systems of language and thinking, legitimate political activity is tightly constrained.

In the current, and very critical financial environment, and in a more likely than not worsening future, one senses the possibility of a radical seismic change. Whether it will manage to create an organisational presence is a critical problem. The American ‘establishment’ with arms in both major political parties, will oppose such a movement strenuously. Such a confrontation will inevitably operate at the very time that the nation will have lost forever for ever its dominant global power. A complex crisis.

Language will change, in unforeseeable ways, with unforeseeable consequences. Many different scenarios are feasible; some hypothetical developments are unsavoury. America will continue to be Exceptional.

Don Miller
15-02-2012

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The ‘not-knowing’

When you look at a friend we have no doubt who he is. Our eyes tell us he is John, for example, someone you have known for years – you work together, you are good friends. But every now and then he says or does something that throws you – you just don’t quite know what he is really saying or doing or thinking.

That’s the trouble: you realise you will never be in a position to know what is going on in someone else’s mind. Our eyes, with the necessary help of mind and memory, can recognise physical/material things; but they can never tell us about immaterial ‘things’.

It is not just another person’s mind that is ‘invisible’ to us. We have learned from experience and what we have been told that when certain tools and facilities ‘work’, that is, when they cut, burn, heat, freeze et al, a thing called electricity is at work – although it is never seen.

Quite a few ‘things’ are invisible. We know we have a ‘mind because we are aware that we are having thoughts – about dinner, the latest app or the state of politics. But what it looks like remains a mystery. And we possibly know also, if questioned, that there is another part of our mind which is more secret, even to ourselves. Such as our long entrenched ‘habits’ which we repeat on a daily basis without being conscious of their presence, let alone their power over us.

Where they are kept and are active for years without our consciousness is a mystery beyond our ken – which means we normally prefer not to thinka bout it; it is all too vague and wishy-washy. But they exist nevertheless. And even moreso are our habits we don’t want others to know about – which if challenged we would likely deny – such as sexist or racist attitudes, or our extreme envy or hatred orparticular wishes that we keep hidden, repressed from everyone even from our conscious selves. Westerners generally don’t know how to handle ‘invisible’ things – the exception probably are religious beliefs.

Freud was not the first to declare that our unconscious (or whatever we want to name it) determines our beliefs, passions and life more than our conventionally acceptable conscious thoughts. It is therefore not surprising that so many people deny that fact; their pride insisting that we are more reasoning and intelligent people than that image allows. To make fun of it or joke about it is perhaps the most common way of dealing with the issue, of denying that you are denying – all without your conscious awareness.

When certain people ‘protest too much’ more often than not it does seem a bit of a give-away doesn’t it? Just read Tony Wright, senior political commentator in The Age today (7-02-2012). The heading reads “ Psychology pops up as Brown decries PM critics as sexist”. He begins “Pesky thing, the unconscious”.

Our invisible mind does play funny games with us. But usually we just can’t see it.

Don Miller
9-02-2012

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Living an anniversary: 9/11

“Anniversaries and their Curses” was posted on January 25 where we discussed the varying impacts they can have on individuals and publics alike. By their regular nature they keep their contents ‘alive’ whether we like it or not. It is no accident that bouts of depression are so often experienced by people, annually, on the anniversary of some significant death or trauma.

The article concluded with an open reference to the ‘lasting’ impact of 9/11. “Will it ever end?” I wondered. Since writing that I came across an article I had forgotten, named ‘The Last Column’ by Hal Foster, Professor of Art and Archaelogy at Princeton University. I want to quote from it without further comment apart from this sincere acknowledgement of Foster’s work. For those keen to read more see London Review of Books, no 17, 8 September 2011.

“There is a hangar at JFK Airport – Hangar 17 – where, until recently, about 1200 pieces of steel and other objects from the World Trade Center site were warehoused — selected as tokens of 9/11 — to be dispersed to memorials around the US, foremost the National September 11 Memorial and Museum at Ground Zero (occupying about half of the 16-acre WTC site, and consisting of two large waterfalls and reflecting pools on the footprints of the towers) which opens on the tenth anniversary of the event—– In all, 1.8 million tons of rubble and debris were removed.
(Many) agree: ‘They are something more than beautiful. They are sacred’.
‘These events are unspeakable (I wrote October 4, 2001 in LRB) but they shouldn’t be left in the oppressive state of the sublime’. Yet that is where they were immediately put and have since remained. For Americans the WTC became the world trauma center, and we were likely to fix on the tragedy as traumatists as we were to work through it as mourners. Very quickly that trauma was turned into support for the ‘War on Terror’ – don’t victims, the ‘lex talionos’ of trauma runs, have the right to be perpetrators?

In this light the talk of relics and icons, and the appearance of cross and stars, is not so benign, for here the experience of the sublime and the traumatic is all but captured by the category of the sacred. Early on, Ground Zero was described as ‘hallowed ground’, and to this day 9/11 is often treated as an event that cannot be assimilated, which passes all human understanding. This trope tends to render the historical event a theological one—- but also the theocratic bent of more than a few political leaders and presidential leaders. —
The struggle for the American soul continues at ground Zero.”

Hal Foster’s article is beautiful and chilling. Again I thank him.
We all will hear more from 9/11. Its presence for the future is unfortunately ensured.

But anniversaries can go anywhere, as I will illustrate in my next blog, “Cool Anniversaries” appearing on

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