Expertise versus Elitism

The life philosophy of an ancient fellow I once knew, who was in the habit of dispensing chunks of wisdom from his doorstep, could have been summarized in the following aphorism: “Everyone’s good at something, everyone has a weakness, and you’ve got to die of something”. In his case all three observations neatly converged on the whisky bottle that was always near at hand. He had a point though; vices and mortality aside, if we cast the net wide enough, there is something in which all of us demonstrate a capacity that we can speak of as an expertise-in-potential.

As the notion of expertise has come to be solely identified with – one might say confused with – that of a social elite, I think it is time to explore, even rediscover, a more democratic idea of what it means or might mean. Already in ancient Greece the philosopher Aristotle put forward a general concept of expertise in his Nicomachean Ethics: “Every art and every investigation, and likewise every practical pursuit or undertaking, seems to aim at some good: hence it has been well said that the Good is that at which all things aim.” The philosopher Alasdair McIntyre in his book After Virtue, claimed that the very survival of Western culture depended on a revival of this Aristotelian idea of the virtues, the idea that each art – we might substitute ‘profession’ – depended on an expertise that was intimately connected with the development of character.

The identification of expertise with an elite has a long history and for much of the twentieth century such a relationship was productive and accepted. As general wealth, health and education increased among the population in general, most people were content that important decisions about politics, the economy, science and technology were in the “safe hands” of a cadre of experts, who, while they also reaped the benefits of their position, were generally believed to have the interests of the people in mind. It was also a time of greater social mobility, in which it was possible for people of ordinary background to aspire to the political, intellectual, technical and scientific elite, through the agency of such things as the Grammar schools.

However, “experts” have come to have a rather a bad press of late, which I suspect is due to some sort of guilt by association as a result of the way events have unfolded in the past few years and how they have been treated in the press. There is little doubt that it is the populist end of the right-wing press that has pursued a campaign of vilifying “so-called experts” or “self-proclaimed experts”. This, though, is a case of mistaken attribution. The problem does not lie with expertise, but with a transformation within the elite. One of the unintended consequences of the Thatcher revolution, furthered during the Blair years, meritocratically well-intentioned as it was, was the reinforcement of existing advantage, so that those with above-average means were able to bootstrap themselves on the property ladder, increase their financial portfolios, send their children to better schools and other means to perpetuate and concentrate economic success. Thus, Britain during the past 40 years has seen a decrease in social mobility overall and the rise of a self-perpetuating elite class.

This alone might not have been a problem, at least not the problem I am concerned with here, which is a corrupted idea of expertise that has arisen as a result. Nonetheless, the social and, to a great degree, the political polarisation that has occurred in Britain during this period, has sharply divided views on expertise, as it has on many other issues. The elite have come to believe that they alone embody expertise and increasingly to base this not on any objective factors, such as verisimilitude with reality and evidence-based outcomes, but on their interests as a social class in which political considerations also play a part. From the perspective of the rest, the non-elite, the perception has arisen, rightly or wrongly, that someone adjudged a part of the elite based on their supposed expertise in some profession, such as science, the law, journalism, the arts, or even sport, for example, has an undue influence on and a ready platform through the established media, to speak on other matters, such as educational or environmental policy, the consequences of which affect the great majority, but from which the elite are notably exempt or insulated.

There is little doubt these bifurcating perceptions were exacerbated by the policy of lockdown during the Covid pandemic. The UK had a protocol in place for the eventuality of a novel respiratory disease. There were, in any case, multiple considerations to be taken into account in a highly complex society like ours. What happened in the circumstances will be considered one of the unmitigated disasters of the twenty-first century. Following the example set by a totalitarian regime, the UK, as did most countries around the world, abandoned its protocol and, relying almost entirely on the computer models of a single individual, Neil Ferguson, professor of epidemic modelling at London Imperial, panicked the entire country into a two-year lockdown.

Having committed to such an unprecedented policy, the government could do nothing but double down when evidence emerged that Imperial College modelling had grossly overestimated the fatality outcomes of every novel virus in the last 20 years, as is now known to be the case also for Covid. Those (also experts in relevant fields) who raised objections to the lockdown based on risk-benefit analysis were decried and ignored in the media, which continued to pump out daily infection and mortality statistics, creating anxiety and a willingness to comply with government diktat about movement and assembly. And speech of course. For the first time ever, we came to know about “The Science”. Not of course science as the process of the gathering of data, rigorous transparency and attendance to truth and the defence of theories against robust criticism, but only the information that government was prepared to tolerate, all other voices ignored or censored by the digital platforms.

The government could claim that its policies were based on “The Science” and that they were protecting people and institutions. But they were prepared to sacrifice “The Economy” on which every individual and the entire nation depend, “The Education” of the young, “The Health” of the population more generally, “The Tradition of Liberty” which has been a hallmark of Britain and which feels very conditional since the pandemic, “The Sanity” of a population deprived of real social contact for months on end, and “The Dignity” of those dying deprived of the human touch of their loved ones. Sweden was the single outlier in Europe in that it was not panicked into implementing the most drastic measures of the lockdown, but informed and advised its population. Recent data show that it fared better overall than most countries on some measures and certainly better than the UK overall.

So, the problem is not expertise, but the politicisation of expertise along with that of the elite. Moreover, the subjugation of the populace by fear – regardless of whether in the final analysis this was well- or ill-founded – has now been bolstered by a phenomenon that came to fruition during the pandemic, that of the doctrines of postmodern radical activism, of intersectional oppression and emotional fragility, which started to permeate every institution of society, creating a culture of compliance, speech codes and self-policing. Thus the elite has cornered the market in expertise by insulating itself against criticism, adopting a praetorian guard of ideological overseers and cowing the population into believing that we live perpetually on the edge of crisis, a circumstance in which the majority of people tend to believe they have nothing to offer.

Having considered the problematic perception of expertise today, in some respects its actual problematic nature, due to association with an increasingly corrupt elite, I want to go back to basics and consider the real nature of expertise along a more Aristotelean line. Let us then start with a clean slate, from the ground up, to consider what expertise is. At its basic level it is a mixture of knowledge, competence in a skill, and a sense of the value of what one does. It implies both an advanced knowledge in a technical sense of the corpus of knowledge of the field and of the practice based on that knowledge, but also the sense that what one does is worthwhile. However, stated thus, it seems to accord too readily with the elitist concept of expertise that we have imbibed through our culture.

I would like to start, therefore, by considering the type of work that is considered by the elite to be beneath them, for example, homekeeper, carer or cleaner. These are often, though not invariably, jobs done by women and, being low-paid and so considered low status, do not generally attract the ire of feminists and proponents of equity, diversity and inclusion, although to be fair some feminists have protested that housewives should be paid, by the government obviously, ignoring the fact that most (at least fulltime) homekeepers are effectively paid by their spouses. But leaving aside these issues, if we can provide a satisfactory description of what expertise means in these cases, it will go a long way to providing a general understanding of expertise shorn of elitist presuppositions.

I am always interested in watching cleaners at work. Not only do they (at least the good ones) carry out their duties competently and efficiently, creating shortcuts to make the job easier, they are also knowledgeable about the environment in which they work, as they move around, often from place to place or company to company. They see things that other people don’t even notice and would be a formidable source of useful knowledge if any managers, thinking holistically, ever deigned to ask them the right questions. The knowledge I are referring to is specifically, professional ‘know-how’; even though there is actually a peer-reviewed Journal of Cleaning Science, I accept this is probably not the preferred reading of most regular cleaners.

Though less common than a generation ago, most readers of this article will know of a parent or grandparent, almost invariably female, who was a fulltime homekeeper. This was a real job, as complex in some respects as that of a corporate boss. How is it possible that some people today consider that this role was a waste of talent because it was not honoured by a graduate certificate or recognised by an hourly wage, when these people essentially kept the wheels on society. A typical day would be getting children ready for school, sometimes taking and picking them up, shopping, cooking, cleaning, laundering clothes, managing the household budget, playing with and socialising children, engaging with neighbours and the local community. In addition they were putting on occasional social events, caring for others, including elderly relatives. Although a generation of radical feminists looked down on these women, they embodied enormous knowledge, competence and value, and contributed enormous social capital.

As I have argued elsewhere, expertise is to be found in the axio-epistemological realm of immersive engagement. That means knowledge of the area of concern is embedded in a form of social agency that is found in institutionalized activity. That does not mean, of course, that simply belonging to an institution confers expertise, it is rather a necessary but insufficient condition. Now, I interpret institution very broadly here – it does not mean necessarily a large well-funded organisation or corporation in which roles are typically differentiated – as a situation in which one is engaged with others in a value-guided (and usually goal-oriented) activity. It may not involve working alongside others in a particular place during particular hours, but it does mean engaging with others’ thinking and with a realm of values that mean we are oriented to the benefit and good of society beyond our own immediate benefit in a network of ideas. Expertise is always oriented to the improvement of human society, even if that is to the smallest degree.

If that claim sounds grandiose, it is because we have forgotten that the social world we inhabit is the ongoing culmination of many changes, large and small, through which we have gained mastery over the world to the degree that it presents far fewer dangers than it did in the past and many more comforts. We are much more productive economically than we were, not just because of automation, but because of the myriad small individual contributions to processes. Given even the most tedious repetitive job, there are always people who find a way to do it faster, more productively, sometimes with no trade-off in terms of quality. Such a person has applied their creativity to bring into being something that did not exist before. Japanese industry was the first to actualise the productivity of the mundane through the kaizen philosophy of employing the entire workforce in the process of continuous improvement. British industry, being mired in a long history of class distinctions, conflict and snobbery was only slow to catch on, by which time the industrial momentum had moved to the East.

The necessity of institution becomes clearer when we consider the importance of transmission. It is natural that each individual in their working life will find ways of doing things better, faster, or whatever. However, this can really only be considered new knowledge when it is transmitted in some way, which then provides a baseline for others to adopt (or not) and then work their own improvements. An obvious criticism that can be raised to the above theoretical characterisation of expertise and, specifically, to the goal of the democratisation of expertise, is the fact that much know-how comes through personal experience or limited generational or person-to-person transmission and not through being co-opted into an institutional structure. This is where the internet plays such an important democratising role, particularly platforms like You Tube on which it is possible to find video instruction on every conceivable topic. Admittedly, this raises theoretical problems for the concept of immersive engagement, which will have to be addressed, though not in this article.

This transmission of knowledge contributes to something called the knowledge ratchet, which is uniquely human. We now know that other animals are capable of intelligent design – what we once referred to generally as ‘instinct’ is now understood to be discovery. However, even though other animals discover improved techniques and use tools and some of these traits are culturally transmitted, there is no evidence of a knowledge ratchet. Rather, evidence suggests that this level of innovation persists unchanged for thousands of generations. To be fair, although we now see ratcheting innovation on a daily basis, we were also using stone tools for hundreds of thousands of years, and we do not yet know whether the qualitative step change was as a result of a genetic change, the serendipitous discovery of a transmission tool such as writing, or was just a cumulation of slight changes that have caused a gradual acceleration in the rate of information exchange.

An additional aspect of institutional belonging is that it buttresses competence. The image of the lone genius is attractive but is generally misleading. Creation is always attributed to an individual, but when we deconstruct it, it always emerges from a slew of influences and is only manifest through a network of relationships. Malcomb Gladwell, in his book Outliers, makes the point that there are many extremely clever people who never make any impact because they have not been institutionally trained, such as going through formal education, for example, and establishing the network of useful contacts. In his earlier book, The Tipping Point, he also argued that for a trend to take off at least three different types of people are needed, including people who know and read everything and people who are well-connected. This is not to say that competence is not down to individual traits, but to emphasise the importance of implication into relevant social structures.

I would like to see Britain become a nation of experts, just as I would like to see every other nation become a nation of experts, because experts in my view are those who make life better for everyone, which is not a zero-sum game. This starts by a reorientation of our thinking to seeing everyone as a potential expert and gradually establishing a culture, educational system and economy around that idea. Underlying this is seeing everyone as valuable and an asset to the family, nation and the global community, though tempered by the realistic options available to the family and society at that moment. Human development can be thought of as meeting the challenges of existing and emerging problems. Humans are the solution to problems, not the problem.

By Don Trubshaw

Don Trubshaw is a co-founder of the website Societal Values. He has a PhD in the philosophy and sociology of education and teaches in Higher Education.

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