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.
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