Apparently the dominant idea of this Age that someone on Twitter called the twatocene (pithy or what?) is that we have had enough of experts. Beautifully encapsulated by the “ I prop up the bar and you can’t tell me what’s right” school of philosophy, the dismissal of experts I think was originally from Michael Gove – a man who, allegedly, reads and thinks and has brought that reading and thinking to his work. An expert telling us we have no need of experts? He was joined in the twatosphere by the “ Leeds born and bred” Shadow Justice Secretary this weekend, and signalled, for me, an ungainly collapse of any remaining hope of intelligent debate from politicians.
Therefore, in wanting to propose some resources (see below), I find I need to say that I think we do need experts. We need people we want to listen to – and people we don’t. The ITT student who gathered a whole crowd of Tweety onlookers telling her she was right to walk out when she disagreed with a lecturer, the minister or shadow minister who thinks that this “no experts” line will allow her or him to sidestep a question when someone with some knowledge objects to their line of argument (and then, smooth-faced, to return to their think-tanks of – erm – apparent experts), or the crabby old academic who might have Twitter and a blog at his disposal but really is just mumbling “things ain’t what they were in my day” – we all need challenging. The expert – the person who has tried it out, the person with the reading and thinking and doing to give them authority – has to be heard (and courteously). This is not, by the way, a plea for some bizarre civility to allow numb-nut racists or Climate-Change deniers access to any part of the social media they choose, or to bleat at people about balance when they don’t get it – and the ad absurdum arguments there are beyond me to tackle.
So when I see the SoS for Education advocating lots of outdoor experience I might (and did) sigh deeply at how this really mustn’t become number-crunching target fodder – but I agree with his overall intent and I let it pass. I might debate his sources, or the implications of his plan, but don’t dismiss the National Trust as “experts I don’t need.” Easy one, because by and large I am in sympathy.
When I see the Schools Minister and friends advocate for more content (what they seem to want to call a knowledge-based curriculum) in Early Years, again I might (and did) sigh deeply and since I am not at all sure about the overall argument or the detail of delivery, I will think about it and debate it – and maybe get frustrated at weasel words or underhand dealing – but I don’t dismiss the participants as “experts I don’t need.” Less easy – in fact quite tricky. But it has to be done.
Dismissing the epidemic of young people’s mental health as a snowflake phenomenon would be destructive dismissal of experts. Dismissing advice on children’s activity as just impracticable in today’s curriculum is also plain idiotic. Neither of them make for easy reading – as a parent, an educator, a rather inactive older bloke – but at least they have not been subject to dismissal. The 20-odd-page government-commissioned report on austerity was, however, dismissed loftily by one minister with the words “I don’t know who this UN man is” and the Work and Pensions Secretary condemned it as “political.” And here I come to the end:
These documents are all political, and they all come from experts in one way or another.
- Climbing trees not only has ability/disability written into its aspirations it has issues of access, local funding, government spending….
- A knowledge-rich curriculum has all sorts of issues about who gets to say what and what is not acceptable as cultural capital, or where libraries and sited and funded;
- Why so many people (young and old) are sick at heart, and what we can do about it is tied up with everything from student loans to mobile phones – and the biggest question is at what pin-point entry-level intervention beleaguered and distracted politicians want to aim their funding;
- Where in the curriculum we design vigorous exercise – and how its expert teachers are supported and training (and – again – funded) are big questions; these are not freebies, if done properly;
- And finally, how has it come to be that “the country’s most respected charitable groups, its leading think tanks, its parliamentary committees, independent authorities like the National Audit Office, and many others, have all drawn attention to the dramatic decline in the fortunes of the least well off in this country”?
“Expert” is being redefined by pundits of all shapes, sizes and political parties as “people who know more than I do and with whom I disagree.” Yes, I stand by the fact that we are seeing an ungainly collapse in any sense of real debate. Come on, please: you’re not playing for points at a college debating society, nor are we paying politicians to put their fingers in their ears when an expert disagrees with them.