This book will likely be embraced or rejected in large part by one’s current political leanings, which is unfortunate because there’s a lot to be gained by reading it. Whether you accept his perspectives or not, Nichol’s has got one thing right:
“…the most dangerous aspect of the death of expertise is how it undermines American democracy. The United States is a republic in which the people designate others to make decisions on their behalf. Those elected representatives cannot master every issue—they rely on experts and professionals to help them. Despite what most people think, experts and policy makers are not the same people…. Experts advise. Elected leaders decide. If citizens do not bother to gain basic literacy in the issues that affect their lives, they abdicate control over those issues whether they like it or not. And when voters lose control of these important decisions, they risk the hijacking of their democracy…or the more quiet and gradual decay of their democratic institutions….”
The (rather monumental) insight that I took away from this book is that I have unknowingly influenced our democratic institutions and helped to create the world we live in today. Yes, me—like many of you—just a regular person living and working in one of our country’s “flyover” states. How did I do this? Not merely through my (intentional and conscious) vote but through my (often unintentional and unconscious) everyday actions. Specifically, through my chosen vocations I have helped to both build and dismantle important democratic institutions. And I NEVER ONCE considered that I could, or that I was. Until now. And THAT is why this book is so incredibly impactful—it drew a powerful line of sight and connectivity between what’s going on in “the big world out there” and me—my individual behaviors—playing out each day in my own little world.
Nichols goes into great depth of the drivers behind the death of expertise, the Internet—a “magnificent repository of information but also the source and enabler of a spreading epidemic of misinformation”—being a major one. But he also speaks of the fundamental shifts in education—the one thing that’s supposed to help us recognize problems of bias and become more informed citizens—and in journalism and media.
What happens when professors disregard the science and the truth behind the bell-shaped curve and give out predominantly “As,” pressured by administrators, as well as parents and students who both fund the school’s growth and demand affirmation of exceptional intellectual horsepower (reality or not)? And what happens when “citizens demand to be entertained instead of informed” by the news media? Stated differently, what happens when the rise of consumer power takes priority in places it really shouldn’t? As both a former adjunct professor and media executive, I know what happens: it’s called diminishing reverence for and deterioration of the very institutions that have long contributed to our becoming thoughtful, discerning citizens and members of society. And I played a role—in one case positive; the other negative.
What if I were more thoughtful about my behaviors then and I had stopped for a just one moment to fully consider the long-term ramifications of my behaviors? And what would it mean to our nation if one hundred, one thousand, one million people behaved just like me? Where would we be in five years? Fifteen years? Fifty years? Would I like it? Or not? These are powerful questions we all need to ask ourselves every day.
Clearly, The Death of Expertise fed into my basic beliefs. I recognized this immediately and put the book down because I wanted to be challenged not affirmed. But then I picked it up again because of a take away more powerful than any affirmation: the uncomfortable realization that my sometimes mindless—but always well-meaning—actions in the past helped to create the world I live in today. And it’s a world that I’m not liking so much.
I suspect that this book will not be read or embraced broadly by those who don’t already subscribe to its general premise. Why? Because Mr. Nichols is angry. And The Death of Expertise is angry, emotionally-charged reading. I get why—the author feels personally attacked and he’s concerned about our future. But I question the efficacy of using anger to fight anger. In today’s climate, we need new approaches to change and transformation that diffuse emotions, not heighten them.