Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Death of Expertise, a rant by Tom Nichols

Democracy means that “my ignorance is as good as your knowledge.” This is the classic quote from Isaac Asimov. This is the point from which Tom Nichols, a professor of National Security at the U.S. Navy War College, begins his book The Death of Experience. Nichols advanced Asimov’s point by adding such statements as “The United States is now obsessed with the worship of its own ignorance” and “we’re proud of not knowing things” (emphasis his).

This situation pisses me off as much as it does Nichols. An important example is the science of global warming. Anybody with a little bit of education, or no education at all, can simply claim that there is no evidence for global warming, when in fact there is. I have written before about how a certain Republican Congressman said he has never seen any evidence for global warming; there were piles of scientific papers on the table next to him that provided the evidence, but he simply did not look in that direction. My own study of global warming, which examines the budburst times of deciduous trees, has over 4000 lines of data. My countless hours of research mean no more to many people than someone’s antiscientific opinion not only based on a lack of evidence but even a lack of even looking up from the table. Somebody with no data at all can simply call me a liar (this has happened).

Another point that Nichols makes is that educators such as myself assume that if we explain things to people, they will believe us. But greater access to information has led to greater, not less, ignorance in the general public. Do you think that the Earth is the center of the universe? You can find a website that confirms your opinion. Really. But if we educators assumed that we cannot change people’s minds by informing them, we could hardly drag ourselves to work in the morning. I’d rather stock a produce shelf at a store (which requires intelligence, by the way) than to do work that is as meaningless as Nichols implies.

But very quickly Nichols’s book degenerates into a rant. He must be the most cynical professor on the planet. Here are some examples.

Nichols says that college is not about education anymore, but about pleasing the clients. We professors want the students to have a good time, even if they learn nothing. College cash flow depends on this. If colleges told half of their students that they had no business being in college, then all institutions of higher learning except the Navy War College would, I suppose, have to close its doors. But I consider this position to be extreme. It is true that I entertain my students, but I also give challenging exams. I firmly believe that students learn better when they enjoy the course. If they hate the course because the professor is cynical (not naming any names here), they will have irregular attendance, will not study, and will not complete assignments. My biology labs are full of laughter but also of learning. When I walk past the lab rooms, I see that this is also true of the labs of my colleagues.

Nichols says that many students can get good grades in courses by simply “exchanging oxygen for carbon dioxide for a set number of weeks.” I was expecting Nichols to provide some data to back this up. He doesn’t even provide anecdotes, except one or two in the notes at the back of the book. Most of his references are like-minded screeds.

Nichols says that colleges have been bloated with majors that are meaningless and a waste of taxpayer and private money. He refers to this as “majors that shouldn’t exist.” Name one! He doesn’t. The long-standing joke is underwater basket-weaving, but it is a joke because no such major exists.

Nichols says that many little colleges have turned themselves into universities by adding meaningless graduate programs. Once again, name one!

Nichols implies that colleges are black boxes from which students emerge with degrees, and that a prospective employer cannot know whether those students have learned anything in college or not. He literally says this is academic malpractice. But he ignores two important processes that he must know about. The first is accreditation. Any college that had worthless programs would risk losing their professional accreditation and, as a result, their students’ access to financial aid. Everyone recognizes an unaccredited “diploma mill,” or at least they should. The second is transcripts. How can an employer tell which graduates are good and which are mediocre? Look at their transcripts! If the student got a lot of bad grades, then the employer has no right to complain if they hire a bad employee.

I teach biology, and even Nichols admits that the sciences are challenging for students. But he implies that students turn away from such challenging majors and instead go for the easy majors. There are two problems with this assumption. The first is that they usually don’t. I just saw the enrollment report for September 2017 from our university registrar, and biology is the number one identified major for incoming freshmen. Nichols may be right that many freshmen with undeclared majors might drift into a meaningless course of study. And as a matter of fact, our university provides a “general studies” major for these students. Any employer that hires a general studies major and expects him or her to know how to fly a plane has no right to complain. But most students choose challenging majors such as biology. Which brings me to the second point. What exactly are these dumbed-down (a term Nichols uses, as do many others) majors? Just last night at the supermarket I ran into an art student I remembered from a laboratory I taught. He does not sit around making papier-mâché bunnies or something. Our art program is rigorous and he would not complete his studies if he was lazy, at least not with good grades. He told me how busy he was with art shows and juried competitions. And I teach at one of these little rural universities that Nichols implies strongly should have just stayed a little college.

What we do, at our university and almost all others, is to give students a chance to succeed—or to fail. We do not tell them at the outset that they should just give up and go get on welfare or something.

Occasionally, as Nichols correctly points out, somebody who is intent on misinforming the public in order to get money or influence will graduate from college, or even get a Ph.D., and then go out and lie to people while citing their Ph.D. as evidence that they are telling the truth. But what can you do about this? A young-earth creationist named Kurt Wise got a Ph.D. in paleontology from Harvard, from no less a scientist than Stephen Jay Gould. But he kept his religiously-based antiscientific views a secret. Now Dr. Wise is out there telling everybody evolution is a hoax. Another creationist, a Moonie named Jonathan Wells, also got a Ph.D. while pretending to not be a Moonie. But is this the fault of educators? God forbid that a future terrorist should ever complete a course of study at the Naval War College or take a course from Nichols—I suppose it would be Nichols’s fault! One of the best students I ever had in my evolution class was a young-earth creationist (and valedictorian) who can now claim that she got her biology degree while keeping her brain intact from contamination by scientific evidence. But this is not my fault. For me to have rejected her would have been, as I understand it, against the law.


I had to stop reading this book on page 90. But before I did, I checked the index for accreditation and transcript, which were absent. The publisher, Oxford University Press, is usually careful about selling accurate books, but this time they dropped the ball.

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