The Customer is Always Wrong
Ever since the turn of the century it has been the basic weakness of bourgeois education that it has been the education of the educated class, building a wall of separation against the working class and losing the spiritual horizon for the universal problem of work. (Lowith, 1991:282 ).
The distrust of expertise is built into the psyche of Protestant consciousness, and from the very beginning of the Reformation. Ritualism, the purview of the Catholic Church, was mistrusted as a manner of manipulation. Holding services in the vernacular was an attempt by the sectarians to reach out to the uneducated ‘classes’ – back then, almost everyone – and thereby return them to both the community of light and wisdom but also to exercise the suasion of soteriological doctrine much more directly. It was, perhaps ironically, the act of the expert to communicate his expertise to the layperson so that the latter could once again begin to trust the former’s authority. From the church to the school, by the first third of the nineteenth century, we see a similar attempt at communication. Before the advent of the child-saving movement – the first in a lengthy and still active lineage of ‘bored housewives’ benevolent associations; a contemporary irony is that the latter day inventions of this lineage are out to ban books and preserve physical punishment of children, both odd ways of ‘saving’ them – there was no conflict between education for different classes. The children of the working class were simply not to be educated at all. That this was altered by mid-century should not necessarily tell us that the history of our universal school system, given birth c.1850 and carrying on today mostly by its own inertia, is or was ever fully democratic in its ideals, let alone its practices.
The introduction of the illiterate classes into the classroom had the general effect of dumbing down the curricula, making them more accessible or even worldly. A similar though more minor seismic tremor was felt when cognitively challenged children were added to the already heady mix perhaps some thirty years ago. The response to this universalizing education was that wealth promptly excerpted its own children from that same system. Seen by the casual viewer as a ‘choice’ which parents ‘ought’ to have, the private school system or versions thereof called ‘charter’ or yet parochial schools is fundamentally anti-democratic and indeed to be so was ever its clearest intent. Wealth does not desire to mix with poverty, either in material or in ‘spirit’. The ‘bourgeois’ education of which Lowith speaks is itself the scion of the new wealth of the post-1789 age, that is, our own. Modernity is rife with the tension between the ideal of equality and the reality of inequality, and this around the globe, within every culture, and often enough even animating the interior of the individual person, who knows not whether to will only himself or to help others gain a semblance of human freedom.
And though the charter schools are sometimes created and thus delineated by ethnicity or even religion, the vast majority of them place themselves aloof to the public system by virtue of wealth alone. Indeed, in the enclave schools, families which are not as wealthy can count on growing their wealth through participating in the limited marriage pool, which is the chief principle of the private system: keep wealth among the wealthy. And with such wealth comes both power and privilege. The ‘blood’ of the yet aristocratic-aping bourgeois class must remain inviolate. In a symbology of envisioned violence, the ‘educated classes’ wage a chill war against any other who would attempt to gain their inherited privileges let alone their wealth. Governments, which after all are run by the elite classes or are at least told what to do by them, aid and abet the spread of private schools, thereby concentrating wealth and privilege amongst the few. Is it any wonder that the majority of us have a heightened mistrust of expertise of all kinds?
Those who are being schooled to become the next generation of experts trust the authority of those current without question. Hence the duplicity of the schools in general, wherein ‘questioning things’ is limited to either the technical or the historical; ‘why does gravitational lensing show us exoplanets?’ or ‘why did Spain hire Columbus the very year it expelled the Moors?’ and such-like. These are questions only in the most literal sense, and hardly that literate. In the private schools, there is, ironically, more of the real question, but this is precisely because the ultimate question of addressing the conflict that privilege has created and thence has attained is never broached; ‘why are we in this school and not our ex-friends?’, ‘why is there a private system at all?’, ‘are we really superior beings or is this an affect of social inequality alone?’. These kinds of questions are on the road to the truth of things and cannot remain in the technical realm. They are of course, also historical questions but they do not absent themselves from the present simply because we also need to know the pedigree of such current social formations. Every other apparent ‘conflict’ about educating today is a decoy: critical race theory, ‘wokeness’, subaltern genders, ‘traditional values’, civics, and sundry others. These fraudulent and fashionable contrivances serve only to allay a lingering sense that due to this family’s relative wealth and this other family’s relative poverty that their respective children will have glaringly different life-chances over the life course.
The final if not fatal irony is that any expert who points this out in a critical manner is himself automatically distrusted. Any pedagogue, any philosopher of education, any sociologist, any ethicist. Surely he too must have been a product of elite education? How could he then be betraying his own kind? It must be a trick. While it is the case that any partial critique that issues band-aid ‘remedies’ is an act of duplicity and betrayal – ‘let’s fund the two systems equally’, ‘let’s reward the best and brightest without regard to class background’, ‘it is a function of democracy to give parents a choice in educating their children’ (a false choice since it is based upon differential access to resources of all kinds) – what these lesser ‘experts’ achieve is but a blanket ban on understanding the key issues that backdrop the problem of knowledge in our contemporary society. To see them for what they are is, regrettably, to also see expertise itself as a mere rationalization for the existing social order.
This general mistrust of the expert appears in all contexts, petty and profound alike. I first experienced it later in my academic career when young students questioned the relevance of the history of consciousness, cited celebrities instead of thinkers, refused to read assigned texts, referenced popular culture tropes as the meat of critique and displayed a shockingly low level of literacy in all its forms. It was of interest that pending social background, this distrust of authoritative work was either fully present or equally absent. Most germane for our discussion here, was that the few working class students at the universities were keen to accept and learn and those from the bourgeois classes felt no need to learn anything but the technique presented for specific professions. The ‘ethnic’ students were of two minds; those from the sub-continent who were wealthy disdained all authority while those from East Asia genuflected to it in a kind of shallow supplication that made it look like they were the ‘best of students’. In marginal regions young people craved learning and understood their privilege in being able to have that opportunity. In urban and more wealthy areas, the students saw themselves rather as customers, ‘clients’, a sensibility only encouraged by the universities themselves, partly as a way by which to divide faculty from the student body and partly to attract young persons in the first place. This latter ploy played upon the quite righteous sense that an average eighteen-year-old is rather sick of schooling and needs be treated more like an adult. Ethically this is correct, and indeed, such mature and respectful relations should extend well back from the legal age of adulthood, perhaps to age twelve. But such respect must function both ways, as it were. Ultimately, there was no point in someone like myself continuing to be a professor in such classrooms as presented themselves, where students en masse behaved as if they had no interest in being present to learn anything at all.
But the insular academy is hardly the only place wherein expertise is in principle mistrusted or even denied outright. And the deniers are, to a person, those who hail from the bourgeois classes themselves. It is as if in attaining their own little arena of expertise, they can maintain it only by denying the authority of all others. Know a little know a lot, they must imagine. My wife, who is a veteran and senior advisor in the finance sector, brings weekly accounts of bank customers who tell her to her face that she is incorrect about very technical matters that no layperson would generally have a clue about. Our real estate agent told us of the daily occasions where she was told how to sell houses by buyers. Our brilliant contractor regales us with similar accounts of those who ‘tell him his job’, which is a concise manner of putting the problem. Similarly our wonderful mechanic, with whom I could not live without. In the corporation of which I am the CEO, our in-house cyber-security and marketing expert tells us of regular occurrences where his highly skilled and subtle expertise is denied by clientele, and add to this the perennial issue of parents telling teachers how to teach, patients telling doctors how to diagnose, analysands explaining their own psychopathology to counselors, and parents – once again – screaming at referees from the sidelines, insisting that officials’ calls were biased, and especially those indicting their own children, what do you know?
Is it odd that I, as an internationally recognized student of ethics, education, and aesthetics and as the author of fifty-three books, should have no issues at all granting others their authority and expertise? Should it not be the case that if ‘know a little know a lot’ is the general foible, that ‘someone like me’ should quite literally think that he knows it all? What my advantage is, is that I have been able to surround myself with those who really are experts in their fields, whether it be contracting, cars, property, finance, or caring for youth amongst others. I can do that because I know what it takes to become an expert, to gain the credentials yes, but the more so, to be able to learn to apply them in the world. At the same time, I flatter myself in knowing the difference between work well done and a sham effort, whether at the level of the individual or the institution. No doubt I cannot always be correct in my estimation of others, even of social structures and their widespread effects. No matter the experience, no matter the level of literacy, there will always be episodes, events and eventualities that defy one’s ‘expertise’. But this reality should not take away from the general sensibility that expertise and authority of the authoritative kind is a pressing necessity in these our shared times and this our shared world. It is almost as if the masses lie in wait for the expert to make his singular mistake, betraying himself as the naked emperor he always must have been. And it is the supposedly ‘educated classes’ who populate this ambuscade.
Even so, one also does not desire a society full of illiterate and obeisant servants who slavishly follow every ‘expert’ demand without question. Yet it is equally clear that in order to ask a serious question, a certain critical literacy must be attained, and schooling neither public nor private is geared into this goal. Indeed, there is no social institution as such that can afford this too precious level of literacy lest all loyalty to them be immediately absent. ‘Corrupting youth’ yes, to be sure. But it is not youth who primarily need educating to these regards, but rather the smug and self-assured middle class ‘adult’ who thinks he knows, if not everything, then at least what he ‘needs to know’ about all things. ‘Everyone an expert’ must be the battle hymn of this repugnant republic: ‘No one knows myself better than I’, ‘My children, my house, my rules’, ‘don’t tell me how to run my life’, and even ‘live and let live’, are its much chanted refrains. There is a certain anarchistic element to individualism decoyed both by the false choices of consumer media and the false democracy of the separate school systems. This impulse plays upon our general lack of control and authority in society as a whole. In fact, very few of us have the luxury to speak our minds freely and fully, and simply because this act is a function of my profession gives me a sense of authority far beyond the reality that the entire history of philosophy has encountered in its rare disseminations.
In seemingly an ultimate irony, Max Weber, arguably the greatest expert on society that history presents to us, stated that we must not trust the experts with anything beyond their expertise. Experts are tools alone. They cannot make decisions for us, especially those political, and thus they should be consulted only in times of true crisis, and thence put aside once again. Insofar as this is how a democracy must function in order to attain a reality beyond that in name alone, Weber is correct. The ‘expert’, of whatever ken, is after all only one person, a human like ourselves, fallible and even biased. Further, the expert cannot be an expert in all things, and so she is not merely like us, she is us, in all of our knowledge and ignorance, partial in both senses of the term. But insofar as expertise is sabotaged by ignorance within the selfsame person, we are jarred into a more general suspicion; if he is that stupid about this, then how can I trust him about that? The only working antidote to this gnawing doubt is to interact with others only within the bounds of their official capacities. All human relations are thus to be made contractual alone. Is this not why marriage is such a challenge for most of us? Only here do we confront the whole person and must trust her, eventually implicitly. Yes, there are even ‘marriage experts’, though one would think that the person who had been married and thus divorced the most times would be the greatest of these!
While Hume stated that ‘all knowledge comes from human experience’, Kant qualified by responding, ‘yes, but what does it take to have an experience?’ and by the twentieth century, other thinkers asked ‘what does it mean to have an experience?’. On the one hand, pending the event, such experience might not even be communicable to others. The vision is notoriously lost in translation, as William James pointed out. On the other, however, most human experience can be at least partially shared. The trick is to understand just how much the other has comprehended of the self, and the more so, vice-versa. We do know something of ourselves, but we also deny and suppress other aspects as important. Even with regard to our own spirits, we are but partial experts. Our shared humanity is unhinged if all imagine that what they know is ‘enough’ to live. True expertise comes in understanding rather the limitations of both selfhood, of discourse, of learning and even of human experience. Not that these limits are perennial, unassailable by a future consciousness or even a more precise science. Even so, our own living Zeitgeist has its inherent limits. Coming to know that when we approach the counter upon which is laid out the pleasures and desires of the spirit of our age that we are always at risk of being wrong about each and every one of them is the beginning of authentic expertise.
G.V. Loewen is the author of over fifty books in ethics, education, social theory, health and aesthetics, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.