The racket of education and the myth of expertise
The managerial aristocracy and you
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects (Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Love, 1973).
So I’m an expert. I’m in the “top of my field”, which means that I know a good bit of assorted stuff concerning my academic specialty, and that I can solve new problems relating to the the discipline better than most. (Yes, it also means I’m a little batty.)
And I guarantee that you’ll be quite hard pressed to find one single ten-year old kid who can’t put me on the spot with a couple of clever questions. Questions which at least would give me pause, and require a good fifteen minutes of research and reflection for a decent response.
This of course also means that any adult of sound mind can in principle provide me with useful and valuable input (even with regard to the most complex or cutting-edge issues of my field) if only in the form of questions from outside the box that could help upend unhelpful presumptions and point the way towards new solutions.
Well, there is a caveat. This assumes that he or she is relatively unencumbered by the trained incompetence and cognitive subjugation that hyper-specialization and the schooling of industrial society inculcates. In other words, the above holds as long as your imagination and critical faculties haven’t been mutilated and your healthy distain for authority and hierarchies is more or less intact.
You’ve gotta dare challenge me.
Unfortunately, most people don’t even have an inkling of the intensity of the social engineering and cognitive control that’s been brought to bear upon the populations of industrial society for generations. Far fewer remain unscathed.
It begins early. Kids are pulled into kindergarten as toddlers, educated by strangers while their parents toil away far from home, being taught to internalize and depend upon the authority and gratification of the distant System and its benevolent caretakers. No dark sarcasm in the classroom.
… schools are not failing. On the contrary, they are spectacularly successful in doing precisely what they are intended to do, and what they have been intended to do since their inception. The system, perfected at places like the University of Chicago, Columbia Teachers College, Carnegie-Mellon, and Harvard, and funded by the captains of industry, was explicitly set up to ensure a docile, malleable workforce to meet the growing, changing demands of corporate capitalism — “to meet the new demands of the 20th century,” they would have said back then. The Combine (whoops, slipped again!) ensures a workforce that will not rebel — the greatest fear at the turn of the 20th century — that will be physically, intellectually, and emotionally dependent upon corporate institutions for their incomes, self-esteem, and stimulation, and that will learn to find social meaning in their lives solely in the production and consumption of material goods. We all grew up in these institutions and we know they work. They haven’t changed much since the 1890s because they don’t need to – they perform precisely as they are intended (Thomas Moore, foreword of John Taylor Gatto, Dumbing us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, New Society 2005).
An important aspect of compulsory schooling in industrial society is the elimination of context and the isolation of the individual. It’s the same phenomenon that Neil Postman identified as permeating mass media, a deluge of decontextualized facts, superficially useful, yet devoid of resources for robust meaning-making. It’s related to the loss of tradition and disconnect from nature inherent to urbanization, and thus a central pillar of general alienation in the late-modern situation.
I teach the un-relating of everything, an infinite fragmentation the opposite of cohesion; what I do is more related to television programming than to making
a scheme of order. In a world where home is only a ghost because both parents work, or because of too many moves or too many job changes or too much ambition,
or because something else has left everybody too confused to maintain a family relation, I teach students how to accept confusion as their destiny. That’s the first lesson I teach (Gatto, ibid).
And inculcated by this confusion, dazed by the sprawl of incoherent and superficial narratives, and deprived of any sort of cultural roots burrowing deeper than the poisoned topsoil, we often end up quite lost. “Surely there are no definite truths?” a friend off-handedly remarked.
Yet we find some sort of substitute for meaning in submission to the system, to the esoteric rational order consecrated by science and authority. Police procedural TV-shows not only function as cautionary moral tales and reproduction of ideology, they actually engender existential cohesion. Dirty Harry makes you feel that everything’s somehow all right with the world, and your identification with the good social order guarded by the stereotype affirms how you’re a small but important part of this awesome project and its unceasing progress.
“[T]he objective and impersonal character of technological rationality bestows upon the bureaucratic groups the universal dignity of reason.” their rationalities and logic are internalized within the user as a way of doing things that exceeds the actual technical interface. As Marcuse said, these private corporations come to seem as ‘the rule of rationality itself’.
It is only in the last fifteen years that this delusional sense of digital superiority (to humans) has come to be seen as natural law. As common sense. As a kind of religious backdrop to the affairs of men. This instrumentalized rationality endows these groups with unquestioned power. With this techno rationality there is corresponding decline in the ability to think critically …” (John Steppling, “To Catch the Exception”)
We particularly find meaning in specialization. Specialization in the most general sense of performing a specific function in the social machine is as old as the basic division of labour, and in some sense marks our full participation in the social organism. It renders us parts of a greater whole, and grants us “fulfillment” and existential affirmation as bearers of the social order.
Specialization has the peculiar effect of letting us vicariously partake in and wield the absolute authority of the system (many of us can realistically hope to become the best one around of some sub-speciality, and on that shitty little anthill, we can actually be king) while also eroding our general competence, rendering us all the more dependent on the system as such.
Again, specialization is as old as grain farming, but I think there’s an argument that what we’re seeing today ought rather be considered hyper-specialization, even in the intellectual classes. It’s not only that these people can’t unclog their own toilets or change their tires, it’s that the general and broad intellectual competence, the cultured mature mind which once was a norm for the academic elite and an apirational ideal for the rest, has all but vanished.
Possibly as an inevitable artifact of the encroaching technological social order.
At worst, I fear that spiritual entropy or an evaporation of the soul's boiling blood is taking place, a fear that Nietzsche thought justified and made the center of all his thought. He argued that the spirit's bow was being unbent and risked being permanently unstrung. Its activity, he believed, comes from culture, and the decay of culture meant not only the decay of man in this culture but the decay of man simply.
Today's select students know so much less, are so much more cut off from the tradition, are so much slacker intellectually, that they make their predecessors look like prodigies of culture. The soil is ever thinner, and I doubt whether it can now sustain the taller growths (Alan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, 1987).
Bloom’s book focused on the general state of the university as such, and he lamented an increasing disconnect from the vast cultural resources necessary to maintain a high level of complex critical thought. Necessary for a decent aggregate level of well-rounded in-depth understanding of how the world really works, without which there really is no conceivable popular agency.
If “social capital” is the total set of intangible resources embedded in a social structure that can be mobilized in purposive actions, a hyper-specialized, intellectually myopic population really holds very little of that asset.
And a core reason behind what Bloom maintains is probably best understood as industrial schooling’s usurpation of the university. Originally institutions geared towards discerning and disseminating truth for its own sake (in a culture who identified its deity and highest moral good with the same), universities are today almost wholly utilitarian (in relation to the goals of capital). Of course, they were always dens of graft and corruption and functioned as producers of ideology and state legitimacy, but today, even the idea of a higher purpose for the institution is basically anathema.
Their role today is basically job skills training and indoctrination. They keep people out of unemployment and furnish state and corporations with training for specialists. In the US and many other parts of the world they’re of course a hub for a huge loans racket, which is an entire chapter of its own. They’re also a key ideological state apparatus with a complex set of functions, not least in reproducing the authority of science, technology and the managerial elite. Of the experts.
Naturally, meaningful research and education also takes place at the university, but the liberal arts ideal at the core of this medieval Catholic institution is basically dead. And that’s because almost all fundamental coherence is torn out from the entire edifice. There’s no longer really any universe for the university to point to, no objective cosmic order for all the parts of our scholastic enterprise to collectively harmonize with. Or so we are made to think.
With no such counterpoint, without constant moderating reference to an objective standard of truth, authority itself becomes absolute and impossible to challenge from without. And the entrenchment and reproduction of authority slowly becomes a core purpose of the entire endeavour.
About ten years ago, I was enrolled in a course for people teaching at the university, a couple of weeks of basic pedagogy that supposedly was to safeguard a basic level of quality in terms of instruction. People from every discipline took part. I felt it was a colossal waste of time, and the overarching focus was on the dissemination of “values” (rather than examining reality), even though I’m sure a good bit of useful information actually slipped through.
But then the absurdity of what really amounts to a matryoshka-doll arrangement struck me in the face. Here I was, a prospective lecturer, being instructed by a teacher, specifically on how to… Well, teach, my students. In turn, a lot of these were in training to become high-school teachers, who then would go on to prison guard duty at the gymnasiums all over the country.
What was all this for? Are this many layers of indirect instruction really necessary for teenagers to receive a quality education?
Well, no. Of course not. The Russian doll arrangement mainly serves to reproduce the institutions involved and their relationships. What the course actually seemed to do was inculcate an air of superiority, an us-and-them attitude towards “the students” below us in the hierarchy, and help us more strongly identify with authority.
I was essentially supposed to become nurse Ratched. I was being shaped into a tool for reproducing our increasingly regimented social order. My institutional purpose was to furnish the scores of young men and women coming to our halls to better understand the world and their place in it into useful resources, and have them repeat the anaemeic ideas of a dying culture, broken cogs on the wheel of divided labour.
They wanted to know, they wanted to learn, they wanted to understand the strange world around them - did they not deserve better nourishment?
Excessive specialization is inherently anti-human. At a societal level, it turns people into smaller, diminshed versions of themselves. It reduces us to one-trick ponies with almost no agency or understanding ourside of our own little groove, and reduces most of public life into various acts of consumption, because that’s the only common role we know. This is basically social media today. Acts of consumption, post-purchase volunteer advertising, and us imitating institutional behaviour for brand marketing, selling our own personae and vying for status in an artificial hierarchy.
All of this inevitably leads us to a reality where propaganda replaces politics.
“Propaganda, not in the sense of a message or ideology, but as the impact of the whole technology of the times.” Marshall McLuhan’s point here was precisely that the culture’s mode of communication would become so suffused by the techniques and methods of propaganda that our manner of thinking, speaking and interacting would come to resemble institutional consent manufacturing.
I.e. the reproduction of authority. Of Regimentation. Centralized control. Dominance. Of hierarchical organization.
A society of one-track specialists devoid of a coherent worldview with which they can leverage their own common sense and critical thinking, and raised to trust distant and arbitrary authority for most of their immediate needs, will inevitably submit to the (ostensible) rule of experts. Its citizens will be intimately acquainted with expertise, not least in regard to their own real, if narrow, competence, and will be used to trust in the skill and capacities of their fellow specialists, especially if they’re socialized to identify with the system and the social order as such.
Prostrate before the occult power of the managerial elite, endowed with the magical authority of Science.
… there must be people traveling to different towns; there must be specialists; but shall no one behold the horizon? Shall all mankind be specialist surgeons or peculiar plumbers; shall all humanity be monomaniac?
A man must be partly a one-idea man, because he is a one-weaponed man - and he is flung naked into the fight. The world's demand comes to him direct … In short, he must (as the books on Success say) give ‘his best’; and what a small part of a man 'his best’ is! His second and third best are often much better.
If he is the first violin he must fiddle for life; he must not remember that he is a fine fourth bagpipe, a fair fifteenth billiard-cue, a foil, a fountain pen, a hand at whist, a gun, and an image of God (Chesterton, What’s Wrong With the World, 1910).
But we can in fact remember. Always. We can open our eyes. We can look upon ourselves and our place in the world around us, and any moment we so choose, get right back to living. To rediscover our astonishing agency, our intellects’ capacity to know and understand every single thing in the cosmos, and the endless numbered days we have been alotted to learn to love them.
“The way out of the asylum is literally to throw out the control panel, on a physical level smashing the reinforced windows, on a symbolic spiritual level becoming independent of rules, orders, and other people’s urgencies. Self-reliance is the antidote to institutional stupidity” (Gatto, study guide to Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest).