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Graduation Season: The anti-intellectualism in America

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I recently started reading the book, The Death of Expertise the Campaign against Expertise and Why it Matters by Harvardian Tom Nichols. The thesis of his work is that skepticism towards intellectual authority runs deep in the American character and that the relationship between experts and citizens in the American republic is collapsing and what all of us, citizens and experts, might do about it.

“To reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way for Americans to insulate their increasingly fragile ego from ever being told they’re wrong about anything,” Nichols writes. This sentiment and feeling is in part, what catapulted Trump into the presidency. There is an air of anti-establishment, anti-institutions, anti-history and anti-tradition and most of all anti-intellectualism in the public consciousness today. Most Americans, characteristically and perhaps unfairly situated in rural areas seem not to concern themselves with facts anymore, but approach so-called experts with suspicion and fear.

{mosads}The idea that the country does not need experts is the kind of illusion we indulge ourselves in until something terrible happens. Everybody wants to second-guess her physicians or accountants until their fever hits 104, or the IRS audits them.

If we do not need expertise in our society why do we push our kids for post-secondary options to either critically think and learn, apply for apprenticeships, etc. to ultimately become experts in their field of choice?

Lawyers, doctors, plumbers, electricians, and even preachers and pastors have engaged in specialized education and practical training to prove themselves prepared, even by established standards, worthy of professional claim. Failure of competent execution of services or practices engaged by such professionals on behalf of non-expert clients can have dire consequences.

There are kinds of valued specialized knowledge – accumulated by individuals through combinations of formal study, scholarship, and experience which may not be coupled to the need of formal licensure or credentialing, but yet offer perspectives, insights and wisdom to society beyond what undressed ‘common sense’ alone can provide. Indeed, many of the toughest dilemmas in widespread spheres of human undertaking involve reckoning with the ‘counterintuitive’ – that which ‘common sense’ and straight-line (linear) thinking do not anticipate and for which even experience, alone, is not always sufficient for effective address. The well-prepared, yet open, mind fused to reservoirs of experience and common sense, however does establish fertile ground for creative and effective analysis and redress. Therefore, surely to deal with tough issues expertise may not be expected to be sufficient, but generally, it should be expected to be necessary to have input from.

However, in today’s climate, immense cynicism among the voting public has been elected to occupancy of the White House with a team that both reflects and stokes the anti-expert, non-intellectual sentiments that embrace a staggering ignorance of lessons learned of and codified by experience and structured thought. The trend is incredibly dangerous.

Roots of resistance to expertise are as tribalistic as can be, and a sure thing is that the transaction costs of a straight exchange of knowledge and expertise for ignorance are high, perhaps disastrously.

At times, I admit, I feel personal affront at having the value of my own earned credentials seemingly discounted by some. I have accrued post-secondary education in both theology and public policy; and given, additionally, my professional experience – which includes a faculty appointment at a major research university – I am often seen as an expert. Indeed I am, regarding matters at the intersection of my academic training and experience.

This general critique of intelligence in the era of Trump is all too frequently felt and a studied dismissal from some quarters.

I am of course ‘privileged’ – by which detractors mean that I should be grateful for a largess that somehow they and ‘their kind’ participate in conferring upon me; but which, in reality, is a consequence of the sacrifices of my family – individual and collective ancestors – and my disciplined investment in myself; I will continue to remain the expert by my continuing renewal and I dare any to define me otherwise.

For I am reminded of Dr. Benjamin E. Mays’ charge to the Morehouse College (my alma mater) graduating class of 1961,

“There is an air of expectancy at Morehouse College. It is expected that the student who enters here will do well. It is also expected that once a man bears the insignia of a Morehouse Graduate, he will do exceptionally well. We expect nothing less….May you perform so well that when a man is needed for an important job in your field, your work will be so impressive that the committee of selection will be compelled to examine your credentials. May you forever stand for something noble and high? Let no man dismiss you with a wave of the hand or a shrug of the shoulder.”

Might such as my own pride of attainment through diligence, hard work, and the support of family and mentors – replicated by sizable cadres drawn from all races and from all parts of the country – be a contributing factor as to why many low-income and/or working class citizens, especially in ‘Middle America’, harbor resentment towards the professional elites? Sentiments such as mine may strike many working-class Americans as “foreign” and condescending. Wealth and/or earning a decent income isn’t the problem, it is the ‘haughty attitude’, they would think, not contemplating the sacrifices and genuine struggles those such as I endure.

But maybe more experts are not what America needs, or wants, right now. Maybe experts can sacrifice their own self-interest to serve the greater good regardless of our expertise or none.

I wonder will my hubris allow such to happen? Just ask Trump.

Professor Quardricos Bernard Driskell is a graduate of Morehouse College and Harvard University Divinity School with 10 years of federal lobbying experience. He is an adjunct professor of legislative affairs at The George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management. Follow him on Twitter @q_driskell4.


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