I Used to Think…That Experts Understood the World

This summer, Harvard Education Press published Richard Elmore’s intriguing volume I Used to Think…And Now I Think. The volume’s title and theme draw from a professional development exercise in which participants reflect on how the experience has altered their thinking. The book includes essays from a variety of K-12 thinkers–including Howard Gardner, Sonia Nieto, Larry Cuban, Jeff Henig, Deb Meier, and Mike Smith–discussing how their thinking has changed during their time in education. I had the privilege of contributing to the volume, and the piece captured much of my own underlying biases with regards to the issues that I regularly tackle in this blog. Given that (and with the kind blessing of Harvard Ed Press), I thought I’d share some over the next few days. If you find this stuff at all interesting, I’d encourage you to check out the book. Anyway, here you go:

I used to think that experts really understood the world. Now I think that they are people who know a great deal about tiny slivers of life, but that this narrow expertise is often of dubious value when it comes to tackling complex challenges or making the world a better place. More to the point, I now think that experts get so taken with their tiny slivers of expertise that they routinely overestimate both how much they know and their ability to produce broad, beneficial change.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Most “experts” always struck me as pompous, self-satisfied, pretentious, venal, and biased. But I tended to place some degree of confidence in their particular insight and expertise. And now, as we say, not so much.

While it may not be immediately obvious, all this has had a profound impact on how I think about schooling, education, and policy. Before I go there, however, it might be useful to back up and explain how I got here.

For the longest time, I was taken with the notion of expertise. I can still remember when I was fourteen and my dad promised me that, if I gave my old bike to my younger brother, I could have his beat-up, yellow Honda Civic when I turned sixteen. The catch was that the Civic no longer ran; rather, my dad (a pretty fair bootstrap mechanic) and I were going to fix it.

It sounded like a good deal. That Saturday we headed out to the Honda resting under the carport, and popped the hood to reveal an indecipherable mash-up of hoses, molded steel, and wiring. I can still clearly recall my response to the sight. It pretty much amounted to, Ah, @#%&! Tellingly, in that moment, I felt a deep and utter helplessness in the marrow of my bones. One thought, clear and certain, ran through my mind: I could study this engine for a month and it wouldn’t make any sense to me. Don’t be fooled. There’s no happy, touching redemptive story here. I slunk away, threw in the towel, and, when I turned sixteen, bought an old Plymouth Duster for $900.

Now, the engine of a Honda Civic, built in the 1970s, was not, in fact, indecipherable. I had buddies who enjoyed working on cars who found engines to be interesting, manageable puzzles. That experience seemed to illustrate for me how sadly inept I was at things that mattered. For much of my life–through childhood, adolescence, college, teaching, graduate school, and into my tenure as a professor at the University of Virginia–I always labored under the strong suspicion that lots of other people had a perfectly lucid understanding of things that were opaque to me.

I remember as a high school and college student reading about new technology companies, research studies, or arms control negotiations and thinking that the people who were doing these things were incomprehensibly smart and informed. I’d read book critics and wonder how they could know so much and find such textured nuance in a book I’d found tedious, or hear football coaches talk about the enormous complexity of their offensive schemes and be dazzled by their terminology.

I would meet fellow college students full of confidence in their future plans, who seemed to know how the medical or legal profession worked and how to go about getting themselves started. I remember standing in line at the Harvard University campus waiting to the take the GRE in political science and listening to all the students chattering about sophisticated political concepts, contacts, and graduate programs. I felt overwhelmed, and tired. How could they know so much?

-Frederick Hess

This post also appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up

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