The Death Spiral Of “Expertise”

From a surprisingly anti-modern analysis in the Wall Street Journal:

Working to achieve a particular outcome is a good model for many crucial human enterprises. It’s the right model for carpenters or writers or businessmen. You can judge whether you are a good carpenter or writer or CEO by the quality of your chairs, your books or your bottom line. In the “parenting” picture, a parent is a kind of carpenter; the goal, however, is not to produce a particular kind of product, like a chair, but a particular kind of person.

In work, expertise leads to success. The promise of “parenting” is that there is some set of techniques, some particular expertise, that parents could acquire that would help them accomplish the goal of shaping their children’s lives. And a sizable industry has emerged that promises to provide exactly that expertise.

If we had to distill modernity to this, it would be conformity and emulation through expertise. Someone learns a way to do some task, and then that becomes the definitive model and all must at least do that. It is a game of “follow the leader” played by crowds out of fear that, by not doing what is the established norm, the individual involved will be culpable if something goes wrong.

For example, Farmer Bill wants to plant okra. In his town, there is lore that states that okra will not grow unless you bury a cow skull among the plants. Farmer Bill does not have a cow skull, so he plants the okra anyway. A tornado strikes his patch. In town, the open-mouthed nodding heads all agree: he failed because he did not bury a cow skull in the plot.

Expertise is the same. We specialize in teaching it through schools, certifications, and government qualification programs. This produces a legion of people who know techniques, but lack reasoning skills, which is why we have a proliferation of slick but contentless art, complex but non-functional and insecure software, interior design products that all look the same and are impractical, and bureaucrats who can tell us why we cannot do anything but cannot tell us how to achieve anything. It is a disease of the crowd.

This produces a death spiral where superstitions are established and can never be removed, much as laws are created and never renovated or struck when they are obsolete or inexact, and bloated companies and government agencies linger long after their relevance. People are afraid to work against the wisdom of expertise lest they, like Farmer Bill, get blamed for an unrelated failure and worse, jailed or sued for denying “contemporary standards.”

Moribund institutions like modern art and rap music linger because people are afraid to criticize them as the calcified and talentless zones they are; absurd government doctrines like affirmative action persist long past their plausible expiration date simply because everyone is afraid to criticize the prevailing expertise. In the meantime, expertise conveniently blocks the vital skills of judgment ability, critical analysis and aesthetic taste.

One way to tell a healthy society is that its behaviors exist as principles which are constantly reinterpreted in the abstract, and perpetually interpreted when applied to specific localized situations. In contrast, a dying society exhibits expertise which is both fixed in a universal sense, and never interpreted locally, meaning that its inexactitude gets spread around much as inefficiencies are spread by subsidies and collective bargaining, in which the least competent is favored as much as the most competent.

The parenting propaganda is another form of this. Instead of producing people who have principles for living, and goals and healthy lifestyles, we come up with a set of universal roles so that broken people can still pretend to be doing the right thing, even though they are just kicking along antiquated and calcified “knowledge” because everyone is afraid to criticize it. As usual, the Emperor has no new clothes after all.

Tags: , , ,

Share on FacebookShare on RedditTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedIn