Sunday, March 16, 2014

On the Concept of Expertise

Something a bit different for today’s post:  this is a sketch of an essay I tried to write many years ago, at a time when I was wrestling with initial dismay over the nature of working as a professional in my field.  Some of the ideas need further fleshing out, with more concrete examples given to illustrate the points I am trying to make. 

Readers are warned that the material is fairly theoretical—not so much horror or fantasy as sociology and philosophy.  But isn’t thinking deeply about life and work more horrifying than fiction anyway?  I hope the questions that I am asking are at least relevant to you: What does it mean to be an expert in some field of knowledge? Of what does this expertise consist?  How is it acquired?  Does the notion of being an expert have any actual legitimacy or reality?

These questions are epistemological, a version of ‘how do we know what we know’, but applied to the nature of work, or concretely, employment.  More coarsely:  how do you know what you know, and why should you be paid for this knowledge?

1.  It seems possible that the concept of an expert, a person with specialized and reliable knowledge, even wisdom, originated alongside the notion of a god or gods—some idea about deity.  In the version I am most familiar with “…God created the heavens and the earth…And God said ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”  To this day, the nature and actions of this God have seemed capricious and incomprehensible at times, thus requiring very early on the development of specialists such as various prophets and priests, and later theologians, to explain His mysterious ways.  Who would presume to do this, in the absence of credentials or licensure?  Visions, miracles and suspensions of natural law were helpful in this regard.   Sadly, this career path is not available to most modern day clergy.  Thus the beginnings of professional expertise are rooted in religious revelation.

2.  Though God and his various interpreters were the original experts, there have been many others since that time, though none have achieved quite as dramatic a result—the creation of the earth and everything in it.  To be fair, in early history there were great ‘doers’, mythological human heroes who accomplished memorable feats:  they conquered others, founded civilizations, and discovered agriculture, architecture and other civilized arts.  Their spectacular successes were the demonstration of their expertise.  Their actions and achievements spoke louder than their words, which were likely to be gruff and monosyllabic.  However, with the advance of civilization, it has been our challenge and misfortune that our expertise must rely more and more on words, that is language, as opposed to remarkable actions—and not at all on various suspensions of natural law.

3.  So we rely on words—special words, specialized terminology, professional jargon—to convey our expertise and persuade others of it.  We are emulating the Ultimate Expert in the Sky, who reportedly created the entire universe simply by speaking it into existence.  We fall far short of that level of professional skill, of that ‘glory of God’.  Our various professional languages merely create the rationale for our claim on limited resources, and deny access to others who do not know our words.  Those necessarily denied access to our practice become our customer base—the laypeople who need our specialized service and knowledge.  Over millennia we have developed elaborate educational and certification procedures to ensure that economic privileges for various classes of experts are enshrined in custom and tradition.  But does a specialized vocabulary ensure the presence of actual knowledge, talent or skill?

4.  Admittedly there must be a handful of ancient, archetypal professions that entail a demonstrable specialization of knowledge and skill.  As human beings, we know intuitively what these are:  hunter, farmer, parent, healer, leader, scribe, builder, teacher, defender, thief—perhaps a few more—custodian?   (Our primordial parents and siblings—Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, and Seth—occupied themselves in just two professions:  animal husbandry and horticulture, although Cain’s descendents were the founders of music, metal working, and livestock keeping.)  It is relatively easy to see what any one of these professions is able to accomplish. To the extent that our work departs from or is distant from this core of expertise, these archetypal professions, we will feel anxiety, insecurity, confusion and a sense of meaninglessness.  Or we will be unemployed, as too many of us now are. 

5.  This is a modern dilemma, one that will become more acute as we endure the unfolding of the “age of information”.   The dilemma arises from the fact that our work has become more abstract and symbolic—less concrete and observable with respect to result or product.  We will be forced to rely more and more on language to justify our expertise and hence our very existence as workers.  Ever more obscure credentials and certifications and specializations will be required that are ultimately driven by a linguistic process.  Basically, it is in figurative language or metaphor that we will seek justification for our specialized knowledge.   To paraphrase Genesis above, “And the economy said ‘Let there be experts,’ and there were experts.”  A metaphorical process produces the specialized language and concepts we rely on to establish expertise in many of our chosen fields.

6.  Metaphor is a hazardous and inefficient form of communication—often intentionally so. It essentially involves a comparison, not a statement of actual knowledge.  Metaphors indicate what something is like, but not what it is.  Look for the application of metaphorical language and thinking wherever some intangible aspect of human life is being explained, advocated, or argued.  Poets, advertisers, theologians, politicians, and psychologists use metaphors all the time.  In their work one can see the effort to communicate an understanding of something incomprehensible or unfamiliar in terms of something recognizable and sensory based, (that is, a concrete experience of some kind).  Yet this is an implied comparison just the same, and not the actual thing itself.  At best, metaphor may be an effective teaching language, as well as providing the raw material for creativity in literature and the arts.  More typically these days, it provides the basis and rationale for purchasing ever more intangible goods and services—from ‘experts’ like you and me.

To recap:  the concept of ‘expertise’ originated in religious revelation.  With the development of increasingly complex societies, human creativity with language developed what in many cases have been ersatz bodies of knowledge through metaphorical thinking .  But not everyone can work in one of the ancient, archetypal professions—the ones all of us recognize as having real expertise and skill.  How will the rest of us make a living in an economy the produces more and more intangible goods and services?  What is the special knowledge or skill we can offer society?  Is our knowledge valued?  Are we?  

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