You Don’t Know Nothing: U.S. Has Always Shunned the Expert

Why did you listen to that man, that man’s a balloon

“Friend of Mine,” The National

My redneck past includes a childhood steeped, like the family formula for making sweet tea, in a demand that children respect authority—authority-for-authority’s sake, the status of authority despite the credibility of the person in that status.

And is typical in the South, these lessons were punctuated with refrains such as the one my mother launched at us often: “He’s a know-it-all that don’t know nothing.”

But the best laid plans of parents often go awry, and they certainly did for me because this aspect of my redneck past backfired big time, resulting in a life-long skepticism of authority as well as my own pursuit of expertise trumping status.

Among my most irritating qualities, I suspect, is I work very hard not to hold forth until I am well informed, but when I do hold forth, I am passionate and that passion often comes off as arrogance.

I have little patience with debating when the other side lacks credibility, and I also balk at the silliest of all—”We will agree to disagree, then.”

Well, no, since your position has no credibility.

So I am particularly fascinated with what I consider a parallel interest currently with fake news and post-truth, what Tom Nichols calls The Death of Expertise.

Nichols and his argument, coming from his conservative perspective, represent, I think, why expertise currently and historically has been marginalized in the U.S.

Pop culture, in fact, has documented well how the so-called average American finds expertise and being educated mockable—think Fonzie on Happy Days and Ross on Friends.

Uneducated Fonzie is always smarter than the educated, and Ross is a laughing stock among his friends, notably often one-upped by the very anti-intellectual Phoebe and Joey (I discuss the latter more fully in Belief Culture).

Nichols and I share a concern about how little expertise matters in political and public discourse as well as policy, but while he and I share some elements of being experts, we are divided by our essential ideologies.

This presents a paradox: The U.S. rejects a cartoonish and monolithic “expert class,” but most fields/disciplines have a fairly wide spectrum of stances within them (in other words, the “expert class” rejected by the U.S. simply doesn’t exist).

But even that is oversimplified. Let me return to my redneck past.

In the South specifically, rejecting expertise is often about traditional views of respecting authority, best captured, I think, in how Huck Finn’s father shames Huck for his book learning. Huck even confesses: “I didn’t want to go to school much, before, but I reckoned I’d go now to spite papa.”

One of my former colleagues recounted often that his own father identified sending my friend to college was the worst mistake his father ever made.

Perversely, many see being informed, knowledgeable as rudeness, disrespectful.

A better recent confrontation of expertise than Nichols’s, I think, is Freddie deBoer’s What Is Aleppo?, focusing on Gary Johnson:

I would like to nominate Gary Johnson’s infamous “What is Aleppo?” gaffe as the moment which, for me, most typifies 2016, at least as far as our intellectual culture goes.

Predictably, and deservedly, Johnson was raked over the coals for this. A major presidential candidate — one who had far more electoral impact than Jill Stein, for instance — not knowing about this important foreign policy issue was disturbing. But it’s essential to recognize what he actually got in trouble for. Johnson’s great failure, what actually fed his public humiliation, was not a lack of knowledge. It was a lack of knowingness. 

deBoer argues: “Ours is a culture of cleverness, not of knowledge, one that is far more comfortable in assessing wit than in assessing evidence.”

And here we may have a more accurate window into why someone who is not really an expert, such as Donald Trump, but is smug and cavalier about being smart, is more compelling in the U.S. than actual experts. Trump passes deBoer’s test:

That kind of thing: obviously smart but not, like, all tryhard about it. You are expected to work out relentlessly to train your body and to show everyone that effort, but your intelligence must be effortless, even accidental.

As I have argued, this is a very high-school popularity kind of dynamic in which bravado trumps credibility; again, think Fonzie’s allure in pop culture: “See, the drop-out is smarter than all those teachers!”

My own career as an educator has highlighted these exact patterns.

As a teacher of English, I am not credible in the field of English because I am just a teacher with an undergraduate, Master’s, and Doctorate in education (not English). However, to politicians and the public, I am routinely rejected in debates about education because my experience and expertise lie in education.

As a prelude to the rise of Trump, consider Arne Duncan, who has no degree in education and who has only experience in eduction as a political appointee.

Who do you think has more public and political influence on education—Duncan because of his statuses of authority or me with 33 years in education, an advanced degree, and a substantial publication history?

That question is nearly laughable in the U.S.

Let me end with a couple examples that are useful for a more nuanced consideration of the role of experts, grounded, I think, in deBoer’s discussion.

First, consider Joseph R. Teller’s Are We Teaching Composition All Wrong? and Doug Hesse’s We Know What Works in Teaching Composition, both published in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

I immediately blogged a rebuttal to Teller, and discovered through responses to my concerns that Teller has greater expertise in literature than composition (which I suspected).

Hesse’s rebuttal is grounded in his expertise in composition, his status of authority (president of NCTE), and his appeal to disciplinary authority (citing ample research that accurately reflects the field of composition).

None the less, Teller’s piece speaks to both an uniformed public and a click-bait culture, and it is likely, as John Warner mused, that Hesse’s better piece will not garner as many views or as much commentary as Teller’s.

This debate between experts serves to highlight, again, the failure of media in terms of honoring expertise, but it also demonstrates that expertise is often narrow and that disciplines are more often contentious than monolithic (although there are some things that are essentially settled and no longer debatable).

Bluntly, we must admit that simplistic resonates more than complex—and expertise is not only narrow but also complex.

Finally, to highlight that expertise is as much about wrestling with knowledge as having knowledge, I offer a debate in a guest co-edited volume of English Journal, centered on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:

At one level, the experts included in this debate, in my informed opinion, are far more likely to have credible positions about the topic than people without degrees and experience in literature, the canon, race/racism, and teaching.

Yet, among these articles, you will find pointed disagreement—and as someone with expertise in these areas, I find myself siding with some, rejecting others, even as I respect the basic expertise among them all.

So in 2016, we are faced with a historical and immediate problem, one that could be solved if we reconsidered our cultural antagonism toward expertise and embraced a greater appreciation for informed stances, the realm of the expert.

As a critical pedagogue, I appease my skepticism about authority and quest for expertise by honoring being authoritative over authoritarian (see Paulo Freire).

It is ours to resist extremes, neither ignoring experts nor abdicating all authority to experts.

As cumbersome as it may seem, democracy that honors all voices works well only when we start with the most informed voices and then allow “all voices” to occur in an educated space.

Currently, we are prisoners to bravado drowning out expertise, and in that echo chamber, freedom cannot survive.

Students, Not Standards: Calling for Solidarity in 2016

Many years ago, I was sitting in the last class session of the capstone secondary ELA methods course as part of my M.Ed. The guest speaker that day was my high school English teacher, the man responsible for my primary career path, Lynn Harrill.

Lynn was friends with the professor, who was then working at the state department of education, I believe.

Toward the end of the class, the professor asked what we wanted our students to know when they left our classes. That question was followed by lingering silence.

Ever the eager student, I said, “I want them to know themselves,” and I caught a glimpse of Lynn smiling widely.

Of course, that is what Lynn had taught me, although most people probably assumed it was reading and writing Lynn had so expertly given his students (which, by the way, was also true).

This moment—one of a very idealistic and naive young teacher, me—comes back to me often, and despite my many failures as a teacher, that grounding goal has always guided me. Not to be simplistic, but I teach students—that’s why I teach.

While reading Four Stories That Homework Tells Children About School, Learning, & Life, I was struck by “STORY #3: School Is More Important Than Other Pursuits/Interests/Activities.”

And now I have to investigate that memory again.

Yes, Lynn Harrill changed my life by being my sophomore and junior English teacher in high school. He was gracious, kind, and encouraging to a deeply insecure and anxious teen (me) who had decided he was a math and science person—because that is what school had told me.

Junior high English classes had been mostly draconian English teachers, grammar book exercises, and diagramming sentences. The “English” content of those classes was easy (I made As), but I loathed it all, even the texts we were assigned to read (much of which we did not read).

Now, before I launch into whining, let me be clear that my story is about how school failed me—but that because of my tremendous privilege (white, male and—according to traditional schooling and standardized tests—high verbal and mathematical intelligence), the consequences of those failures were miniscule. I attended college and continued to make As (easily), leading to an MEd and EdD.

I share this, then, not to bemoan poor pitiful me (or to brag), but to highlight that schools often fail students in ways we do not acknowledge and that the consequences for those students who need schooling most are monumental.

While I was begrudgingly playing school and succeeding, at home I was engaged in a rich array of hobbies and interests that school not only ignored, but also indirectly refuted (even Lynn told me as a 10th grader I needed to stop reading science fiction [SF] and start reading real literature such as Fitzgerald).

I was collecting, reading, and drawing from thousands of Marvel comic books. I was voraciously listening to popular music and studying the lyrics. And I was doing the same with comedy albums, mostly George Carlin and Richard Pryor.

My reading life, as I noted above, was Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, Arthur C. Clarke, and whatever works were prompted by my mother’s SF film fascination. I fell in love with The Andromeda Strain because of the film, and much of my formative life was driven by the five Planet of the Apes films and TV’s Star Trek.

My response to the real literature endorsed by Lynn was tepid (but always the mama’s boy, I did as teachers told me to do), but my life was irrevocably changed when he also recommended writers I would never be assigned in the rural South of the 1970s—notably D.H. Lawrence.

Well, damn, I thought. This is literature?

My journey from student to teacher began in my sophomore year of high school as I began to untangle the false narratives school had taught me and came to embrace the authentic narratives of my real life, my real Self, outside of school.

More than a decade into my teaching career (in the position Lynn left at my high school) and in the same doctoral program Lynn had completed, I finally discovered critical pedagogy as the complete vision of student-centered teaching and learning I had been haphazardly practicing.

Regretfully, my entire career as an educator (18 years as a high school ELA teacher and then 14 more years, and counting, as an English educator and first-year writing professor) has occurred under the antithesis of student-centered critical education—the high-stakes accountability movement.

All of which, ironically, I have been prepared for by the very reading material school marginalized, science fiction and dystopian fiction.

Standards, high-stakes tests, and accountability fail students, fail teachers. They conspire to do exactly what homework accomplishes in story #3 above.

I cannot step away form this: I must teach those students placed in my care, and that duty requires me to find out who they are, what they know, and what they want so that we can work together so that they find who they are and who they want to be.

So, I wonder with the new year, and the allure of resolutions—who is with me in 2016? Can we make this about students and not standards, not tests?

See Also

Doubling Down (Again) by Reverting, Not Changing: The Exponential Failures of Education Legislation

Teacher Quality, Wiggins and Hattie: More Doing the Wrong Things the Right Ways

More on Evidence-Based Practice: The Tyranny of Technocrats

Beware the Technocrats: More on the Reading Wars

I Don’t Need Standards To Teach, I Need Students

Are Common Core and Testing Debates “Two Different Matters”?

Cormac McCarthy’s Mostly White, Male Mythology: Rethinking the Canon

Ryan Boyd focuses his response to the new book by Ta-Nehisi’s Coates on “the bookworm’s Between the World and Me” in order to “speculate briefly on what that says about Coates’s writing mind.”

Boyd agrees with John Warner that Coates is more student than James Baldwin’s preacher. And in his roles as student, writer, public intellectual, Coates presents as well a nuanced (and I think, important) perspective on what literature matters:

Coates is a canonist. Not in the normative way that, say, Harold Bloom or Matthew Arnold are, because they see canon-formation and maintenance as primarily an Anglo project; but rather in terms of a basic belief that some texts really are better than almost all others and thus worth passing along to younger generations first. To be sure, he envisions a democratic canon which is constantly interrogated and supplemented, but he’s still a Great Books man. Canonicity is a principle, not a specific roster of content.

Many teachers, writers, and readers have fought a long and seemingly endless battle against the normative canon, which has existed as a prescriptive list of dead white men’s books—myself among that cause.

Yet, I have always struggled with loving many of the works that fall into that traditional canon, like Coates, and also felt self-conscious about having standards myself for “good” versus “bad” literature.

This schizophrenia manifests itself for me in my response to young adult (YA) literature: I strongly advocate for YA literature because it encourages children to read, often a great deal, but I often add that for me most YA literature falls short of what I expect from literature (and I think too many YA works ask too little of teens who are more capable than writers and publishers seem to believe).

I have made that same case about comic books and graphic novels.

This Coates-inspired rethinking about the canon, then, has coincided with my finishing Cormac McCarthy’s The Border Trilogy: All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain.

McCarthy as a white male writer and then his mostly white, male mythology represent the essential tension faced by those of us calling for the expanded canon, including the voices of women and black/brown authors.

The Racist Imperative: White as Mythological and Universal

Scott Esposito acknowledges in McCarthy “the allegorical nature of The Border Trilogy“:

McCarthy seems to be at pains to paint these books in black and white because he knows he is writing allegories, and thus they require broad strokes in order to function properly.

The Border Trilogy is certainly not nearly as realist as McCarthy’s first four novels, or even as realist as Blood Meridian. It has been previously commented that John Grady and Billy are far too able as cowboys to be believable. Whether breaking a horse, muzzling a wolf, or shooting game, they never struggle to do anything; they just do it, much like an epic hero might.

I find the trilogy compelling because of McCarthy’s Faulknerian tendency to drop into poetry (frequently, the prose is beautiful above and beyond the obligation a writer has to move along a story) and because the works are mythology charged with confronting readers with universal questions about justice and coming to grips with the human condition.

And therein lies the problem, but not one we must lay at McCarthy’s feet alone since the white and misogynistic template for mythology is literally Greek and Roman mythology.

The white male hero was not created by McCarthy (see Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces), but John Grady Cole and Billy Parham maintain a tradition among the normative canon of casting whiteness and maleness as the universal Truth, one that has moved away from description and toward prescription.

As well, McCarthy slips uncritically into the template of the female-as-prize for the male-as-savior—notably Magdalena (Cities of the Plain), a mere child cast as epileptic prostitute and, as always, beautiful. (See the same strengths and weaknesses in True Detective, season 1.)

However, if McCarthy’s works are simply endorsed by the normative cannon edict or dismissed by a similar but inverse multi-cultural mandate, I believe that we fail Coates’s canon-as-principle, as Boyd suggests.

The Border Trilogy is allegory, mythology rich in considerations of the nature of justice as well as the elusive nature of any human seeking to bring about justice.

More nuanced, I think, is the Mexico/U.S. duality posed by McCarthy—much as Margaret Atwood does with Canada/U.S. and Roxane Gay does with Haiti/U.S.

Nested within the larger themes of justice, Mexico becomes an allegory of the communal while the U.S. represents a people trapped in the market. Billy Parham’s sense of justice is enhanced by the kindness he experiences while criss-crossing into Mexico. The border crossing is itself a mythological passage in which coins signal the transition from Mexico—where my house/food is your house/food—to the U.S.—where everything is a matter of money.

This Mexico/U.S. contrast does raise themes about race and culture, to McCarthy’s credit, but that remains within the white gaze of the author and the dominant white male central characters.

Yes, there is a veiled racial/racist tradition in McCarthy’s allegory/mythology that frames white and male as universal, but those qualities are part of a larger fabric offered in the work—a fabric that may and should be judged in the complex canon-as-principle that seeks to discover “some texts really are better than almost all others and thus worth passing along to younger generations first,” per Boyd from Coates.

In my early and rare scholarly publications while I was teaching high school English (see below), I wrote several times about how to merge the traditional canon with multicultural works. Then, I was struggling against the normative canon, but I had no lens for addressing the either/or trap of calling for multicultural literature at the expense of so-called classic works.

Today, as I sit with McCarthy’s Border Trilogy before me—and I think about Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy as both fundamentally like McCarthy’s and in very significant ways unlike McCarthy’s (for example, Lisbeth Salander)—I have begun to reconsider the notion of the canon personified by Coates as not a compromise but a richer mechanism for confronting all texts in order to reimagine what works to celebrate, to teach, and to embrace in our never ending journey as students.

In his Between the World and Me, Coates champions the power of literature and confirms Walter Dean Myers’s recognition about the normative canon: “there was something missing.”

Coates (Malcolm X and Baldwin) and Myers (Baldwin) share the importance of seeing yourself in the fictions that make you who you are; in short, the universal—particularly the universal as a thin veil for white/male privilege—is not enough, even when the universal is compelling, as Myers reveals:

I needed more than the characters in the Bible to identify with, or even the characters in Arthur Miller’s plays or my beloved Balzac. As I discovered who I was, a black teenager in a white-dominated world, I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine. I didn’t want to become the “black” representative, or some shining example of diversity. What I wanted, needed really, was to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me.

See Also

Ta-Nehisi Coates and Cormac McCarthy Walk Into a Bar, T. Elijah Hawkes

Thomas, P.L. (1996). When Wordsworth is too tame: Merging minority literature with the classics in the secondary language arts curriculum. In L. Cooke & H. C. Lodge (Eds.), Voices in English Classrooms: Honoring Diversity and Change, 28 (pp. 177-185). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Thomas, P.L. (1991, Spring). Exposing the universal through the diverse: The role of minority literature in the language arts curriculum. Western Ohio Journal, 12 (1), 58-61.

Reading Out of Context: “But there was something missing,” Walter Dean Myers