Oxford University Press, 2017; 240 pp;
By Scott McLemee
A survey of 7,000 freshmen at colleges and universities around the country found just 6 per cent of them able to name the 13 colonies that founded the United States. Many students thought the first president was Abraham Lincoln, also known for “emaciating the slaves.” Par for the course these days, right?
It happens that the study in question was reported in The New York Times in 1943. The paper conducted the survey again during the Bicentennial, using more up-to-date methods, and found no improvement. “Two‐thirds [of students] do not have the foggiest notion of Jacksonian democracy,” one history professor told the Times in 1976. “Less than half even know that Woodrow Wilson was president during World War I.”
Reading the remark now, it’s shocking that he was shocked. After 40 years, our skins are thicker. (They have to be: asking the current resident of the White House about Jacksonian democracy would surely be taken as an invitation to reminisce about his “good friend,” Michael.)
The problem with narratives of decline is that they almost always imply, if not a golden age, then at least that things were once much better than they are now. The hard truth in this case is that they weren’t. On the average, the greatest generation didn’t know any more about why The Federalist Papers were written, much less what they said, than millennials do now. The important difference is that today students can reach into their pockets and, after some quick thumb typing and a minute or two of reading, know at least something on the topic.
How to judge all this is largely a question of temperament — of whether you see their minds as half-empty or half-full. Tom Nichols conveys the general drift of his own assessment with the title of his new book, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters, published by Oxford University Press. The author is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and an adjunct professor at the Harvard Extension School.
He sees the longstanding (probably perennial) shakiness of the public’s basic political and historical knowledge as entering a new phase. The “Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers” is like a lit match dropped into a gasoline tanker-sized container filled with the Dunning-Kruger effect. (It may seem comical that I just linked to Wikipedia to explain the effect, but it’s a good article, and in fact David Dunning himself cites it.)
Nichols knows better than to long for a better time before technology shattered our attention spans. He quotes Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation from 1835: “In most of the operations of the mind, each American appeals only to the individual effort of his own understanding.” This was basic to Jacksonian democracy’s operating system, in which citizens were, Tocqueville wrote, “constantly brought back to their own reason as the most obvious and proximate source of truth. It is not only confidence in this or that man which is destroyed, but the disposition to trust the authority of any man whatsoever.”
The difference between a self-reliant, rugged individualist and a full-throated, belligerent ignoramus, in other words, tends to be one of degree and not of kind. (Often it’s a matter of when you run into him and under what circumstances.) Nichols devotes most of his book to identifying how 21st-century American life undermines confidence in expert know-ledge and blurs the lines between fact and opinion. Like Christopher Hayes in The Twilight of the Elites, he acknowledges that real failures and abuses of power by military, medical, economic and political authorities account for a good deal of skepticism and cynicism toward claims of expertise.
But Nichols puts much more emphasis on the mutually reinforcing effects of media saturation, confirmation bias and “a childish rejection of authority in all its forms” — as well as the corrosive effects of credential inflation and “would-be universities” that “try to punch above their intellectual weight for all the wrong reasons, including marketing, money and faculty ego.” Unable to “support a doc-oral program in an established field,” Nichols says, “they construct esoteric interdisciplinary fields that exist only to create new credentials.”
Add the effect of consumerism and entertainment on the academic ethos, and the result is a system “in which students learn, above all else, that the customer is always right,” creating a citizenry that is “undereducated but overly praised” and convinced that any claim to authoritative knowledge may be effectively disputed in the words of the Dude from The Big Lebowski: “Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”
As a work of cultural criticism, The Death of Expertise covers a good deal of familiar territory and rounds up the usual suspects to explain the titular homicide. But the process itself is often enjoyable. Nichols is a forceful and sometimes mordant commentator, with an eye for the apt analogy, as when he compares the current state of American public life to “a hockey game with no referees and a standing invitation for spectators to rush onto the ice.”
But one really interesting idea to take away from the book is the concept of metacognition, which Nichols defines as “the ability to know when you’re not good at something by stepping back, looking at what you’re doing, and then realizing that you’re doing it wrong.” (He gives as an example good singers: they “know when they’ve hit a sour note,” unlike terrible singers, who don’t, even if everyone else winces.)
“The lack of metacognition sets up a vicious loop, in which people who don’t know much about a subject do not know when they’re in over their head talking with an expert on that subject. An argument ensues, but people who have no idea how to make a logical argument cannot realize when they’re failing to make a logical argument.… Even more exasperating is that there is no way to educate or inform people who, when in doubt, will make stuff up.”
The implications are grave. In 2015–16, Donald Trump ran what Nichols calls “a one-man campaign against established knowledge,” and he certainly pounded the expertise of most pollsters into the dirt. He is now in a position to turn the big guns on reality itself; that, more than anything else, seems to be his main concern at present. Nichols writes that research on the Dunning-Kruger effect found that the most uninformed or incompetent people in a given area were not only “the least likely to know they were wrong or to know that the others were right” but also “the most likely to try to fake it, and the least able to learn anything.” That has been shown in the lab, but testing now continues on a much larger scale.
Scott McLemee helped start the online news journal Inside Higher Ed, where he serves as Essayist at Large, writing a weekly column called Intellectual Affairs.
This review was first published in the March 1, 2017 edition of Inside Higher Ed. Reprinted with permission.