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By 12/21/2011

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Note: This week, I’m giving readers a look at my essay in Richard Elmore’s recent Harvard Education Press volume I Used to Think…And Now I Think. If you find this stuff at all interesting, I’d definitely encourage you to check the book out. For day one, see here.

Along my path through academia, I started to doubt whether I’d ever even be able to find a job. I’d ask myself, “Wow, I know so little and all these successful people know so much; how am I ever going to convince anyone to hire me to do anything?”

Little by little, though, I got the sense that these folks didn’t know as much as they claimed. I posted a pretty fair score on that political science GRE, one that suggested I knew as much or more than any in that intimidating cast of characters. When I was admitted to the PhD program in government at Harvard and then won a National Science Foundation fellowship, the chilling possibility occurred to me that I actually was a budding expert–in my own little area. That was downright scary, because I knew how little expertise I actually possessed.

I would listen to lectures or read policy proposals and be struck by their seeming naiveté and reliance on wishful thinking. I’d ask an acclaimed guest speaker a question about practical application or potential unanticipated consequences of their recommendations, and I’d consistently be underwhelmed by their inclination to rehash their talking points and brush past any complications. It gradually struck me, as I earned my MEd and then took my first teaching job, that much of the “expertise” I encountered seemed to consist of self-promotion, a dubious title, or misplaced self-confidence.

As I finished my degree, was hired as a professor by a respected university, and started to publish books, articles, and papers that drew attention from newspapers and leading authorities, it became clear to me that I was indeed now one of those “experts.” I was still utterly confident that I had no business fixing a car, much less the world. And I knew I had no claim on posing as an unimpeachable source of wisdom. In light of that, I figured there were only two explanations for my newfound success. The first, and the one I favored for the longest time, was that I was a fortunate poseur, a fake, an imposter who had gotten in over my head and who would be found out in due time. The second was that I was like a lot of the other experts and that they actually were (or should be) as hesitant as I to claim they could fix the world with any precision.

Over time, I’ve become increasingly convinced that the correct answer was the second explanation. And, let me be clear, that realization froze my blood. For one thing, I’ve been surprised at how many successful and respected individuals I know who, in moments of private candor or over a beer, will smilingly confess to their own version of the Am I a fraud? concern. For another, I’ve been astonished at the resistance to alternate ways of thinking or seeing that characterizes so many reputed experts. And I’ve come to believe that arrogance, traditions of deference, the yearning for verities, and the demands of hierarchical institutions have as much to do with creating many supposed experts as does actual merit.

In particular, I’ve been fascinated to see how success in some role (as a CEO, a superintendent, a politician, or what have you) is broadly seen as giving someone entrée to playing the expert in all kinds of venues where they may or may not know what the hell they’re talking about.

I gradually became convinced that this phenomenon isn’t unique to education or academia. Really, in pretty much any realm where we can measure how expertise fares, its track record is rather weak. Consulting firms have very uneven records of actually improving the state of affairs for their clients. Most professional stock pickers do worse than simple indexes of stocks. Professional talent evaluators have a famously uneven track record in the NFL, NBA, or MLB drafts when predicting the next crop of star athletes. Industry executives have a horrendous record when it comes to predicting which movies, books, or television shows are going to be hits.

And, of course, there are experts like David Lereah, formerly the chief economist for the National Association of Realtors. In 2005, Lereah published a book titled Are You Missing the Real Estate Boom? Why Home Values and Other Real Estate Investments Will Climb Through the End of the Decade–and How to Profit from Them and told the Washington Post that year that “any talk of the housing market crashing is ludicrous.”

Further, we should all keep in mind that I am hardly the first to be struck by the dubious nature of expertise. Aristophanes had great fun with this precise topic more than two thousand years ago, while Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels found the academicians of Lagado intent on extracting sunbeams from cucumbers.

- Rick Hess

This post appeared earlier on Rick Hess Straight Up.




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