Nashville Reprise

Okay, I left two topics hanging from my Nashville trip, and thinking about David and John reminded me to make good my IOU.

First, about expertise. I don’t think that the Web lays a finger on expertise in any sense that ought to worry people. People who really know a lot about (for example) astrophysics will still know a lot about astrophysics, and if I have a lot riding on an astrophysical question, I’ll ask my uncle or some other Official Astrophysicist.

It does complicate the social role of “ the expert.” People have traditionally looked to institutional structures for authenticating expertise: “She has a Ph.D. from Stanford,” or “He’s the D. Searls Professor of Astronomy at the University of Blogaria.” That reliance on institutions has always produced flawed results. We know that not everyone who gets a degree (even from a famous institution) has attained reliable mastery of her or his topic area at the time of graduation, and many neglect to keep up adequately after they graduate. Moreover, we know that not all brilliant, insightful people get academic degrees at all (plenty of sharp intellects never go to college, much less graduate schools). So the social-institutional definition of “experts” has been flawed all along.

Now that the web allows us to connect with so very many people, who converse so freely about so many topics, we’re loosely joined to innumerable people who may qualify as experts on social-institutional terms, and innumerable others who may not qualify on social terms, and they’re all answerable for the stuff they say in public. If the degree holder is a barely-made-it pontificator from Stanford, the web can call that expert to account; and if the autodidact knows her stuff and explains it lucidly, we’re better off listening to her than to Dr. Stanford.

It’ not as simple as that, of course — but it’s more simple to outflank unwarranted socially-instituted expertise now, online, than it was a few years ago, offline. And if that makes the possessors off socially-instituted expertise edgy, well, maybe it ought to.

The other topic I wanted to get back to was the question of blogging, education, and writing in public. I’ll keep this short ’cause I want to get on to preaching and the gospel of Matthew.

Some Vanderbilt faculty raised the question of whether student blogs should be accessible outside the campus, and David pressed me on this in the course of our drive to Seabury from O’Hare. I’m still thinking this over, but my present position amounts to this: there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with setting course expectations to include the capacity to speak in public on the course’s topic. John pointed out that this is one of the hallmarks of a liberal education, and Trevor has argued that part of the vocation for which we’re preparing Seabury students includes public proclamation of one’s assessment of the truth. All this seems quite compelling to me, and I’m fretful about the privatization of thought. One part (not the only part, not necessarily the decisive part, but one part) of education comprises learning how to formulate well-considered positions for public discourse. That tends often to get the least attention in a cultural setting that concentrates ferociously on the individual and privacy, and that soft-pedals public critical discourse at a depth greater than “Neener, neener, Republican,” and “Neener, neener, Democrat.” (This actually gets back to the “expertise” question, as the formal character of expertise has grown overvalued in the last few years to the extent that a [one-way] broadcast cultural world diminishes the pushback on public discourse. Lacking models of public intellectuals engaged in substantive debate, students [and some faculty] adopt a vigilant reluctance to think and speak in public.)

OK — it’s more complicated than that, as my students will especially be quick to say. But that’s the side I’m on for now. I owe people an account of the congruence between my firm support for public accountability for our lives with my firm resistance to government information-gathering, for example. But saying this, I can remove the “blog-in-prog” sign from two weeks ago’s post.

DRMA: “Bodies” by the Sex Pistols; “Heartbreaker” by the Rolling Stones; “What You Wanna Do” by the Reivers; “Sombre Reptiles” by Brian Eno; “Sweetheart Like You” by Bob Dylan —Happy birthday, Bob! (“Steal a little and they throw you in jail/Steal a lot and they make you a king”); “Nugget” by Cake; “The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest” by Bob Dylan; “It’s So Hard” by John Lennon; “Standing in for Joe” by XTC; “Pride (In The Name of Love)” by U2; “Collideascope” by the Dukes Of Stratosphear [XTC]; “Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You)” by Stevie Wonder; “The Great Escape” by Moby.

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