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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

Title

Who Gets to Be an Expert in Education?

Me? Maybe not.

October 24, 2017
 
 

So I’ve been working on two books concerning the teaching of writing, and while I’ve been working I’ve been thinking a lot about who gets to be an “expert,” and why.

By “thinking,” I actually mean “worrying,” as in, what if people don’t think I know what I’m talking about?

I’m anxious because though I have 20 years of experience teaching writing, I am not and never have been a “professor.” I do not have a degree in rhetoric and composition. I will be placing a lot of weight on the reputations of the publishers, one a well-regarded university press and the other a commercial house. But this reflected credibility is not where my expertise -- such as it is -- emanates from.[1]

I am a practitioner. Most of what I know about writing and teaching writing comes from doing. I have bolstered this doing with scholarship, and I am making significant use of scholarship in the books, but it is almost exclusively in the service of something I first learned for myself through doing.

Working on these books has simultaneously caused me to trust and doubt my own expertise. On the one hand, I can recognize I really do know a lot about writing and teaching writing. On the other, I’m constantly running up against things I did not know, or things other people knew long before I did. This reminds me that expertise really is a process, rather than an endpoint. Even if I’m ultimately believed by others to be an expert, that journey isn’t over, and if I’m not careful, while the imprimatur of “expert” may be relatively enduring, whether or not it reflects an underlying reality will always be up for questioning.

Anyway…

I ran across this sentence in one of my sources, a critical review by Audrey Watters and Sara Goldrick-Rab of Kevin Carey’s The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere, “In this political economy, the experts on education are rarely experts in education, and that is just the way an increasing number of powerful people seem to like it.”

The review is a thorough accounting of the rather narrow and ahistorical view of the book, criticisms that seem to have been proved in the less than two years since the release of The End of College, as the MOOC revolution that was supposed to transform into the “University of Everywhere” has fizzled into targeted corporate training and other very specific applications.

I do not intend to pick on Carey specifically here, as he is merely representative of a much larger phenomenon, but it is interesting to note that like so many other education “experts,” he has little to no background as a practitioner of the subject on which he is supposedly expert. This is not to say Carey and people like him don’t know anything, just that their perspectives are necessarily limited by their experiences or lack thereof.

But as Watters and Goldrick-Rab note, “Many in this space value ‘outsider’ takes on higher education for their supposed unbiased clarity. They also seem to value the gravitas of wealthy technologists and data scientists who pose as being too serious for identity politics or culture wars.”

Because of their success in tech and great wealth, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are treated as education “experts.” Neither has any practitioner experience in education. Both are college dropouts, even. They have pumped billions of dollars into education without meaningfully improving anything education-related. Yet, their status prevents them from being viewed as failures, even as an intractable narrative of “failure” has attached itself to K-12 teachers and schools, a narrative launched on the Reagan Administration’s Gulf of Tonkin Incident for education “reform,” A Nation at Risk, which was crafted primarily to provide a rationale for expanding the use of charter schools.

Let’s pause to admire the irony. Reformers have failed at improving the thing they said was failing, which wasn’t really failing in the first place, but somehow the reformers get to keep biting at that apple, over and over again.

That schools are failing has become a bipartisan article of faith as evidenced in the policies and public pronouncements of our most recent Education Secretaries.

The idea that Gates, Zuckerberg, Arne Duncan and Betsy DeVos operate absent ideology is absurd, and yet up until Secretary DeVos, who is apparently a bridge too far for mainstream Democrats, the centrality of their ideology to their policy preferences went largely unremarked upon, but DeVos is just barely less fanatic than Duncan.

Their collective faith in the “free market” to provide quality education is as fervent as any belief held by a so-called “social justice warrior.”

I am trying to think of an area other than education where the expertise of the practitioner seems to have so little currency. The series of “reforms” visited upon K-12 education over the last thirty plus years have been heaped upon teachers with hardly any of their input. Journalists and policy “wonks” like Carey, or the Common Core State Standards godfather David Coleman (who has gone on to lead the College Board), on the other hand, are accorded great deference.

This is an ecosystem of “expertise” in education that seems almost entirely divorced from educators themselves and operates upon unexamined ideologies, independently of practitioner expertise.

Carey’s book was very favorably blurbed by Amanda Ripley[2], a journalist and author of The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, an account of how children learn in the highest “performing” countries. Amanda Ripley, someone who is entirely an outside observer of education, is now considered an “expert” on education.

She said this about The End of College: “Don't even think about going to college (or paying for it) until you have read this book. Kevin Carey has changed forever how I think about the modern American university. The End of College delivers a scathing indictment of the past and present -- alongside a glorious prediction for what comes next.”

Even for blurb speak, this is effusive. In the light of the review by two practitioner experts like Watters and Goldrick-Rab, as well as the reality of how things have played out, it is also ill-considered and wrong. Of course a practitioner of education never would’ve issued such an endorsement because we are too aware of how complicated these things are. No one who has spent time in the trenches of higher education would predict a “glorious” future anything.

As an analysis of the economics of higher education, The End of College is useful, but it has very little to say about students and learning, and is instead built on a faith in the free market and “disruptive innovation,” as though the efficacy of these forces is a given. As a whole, it reads like a fantasy divorced from reality.

Of course non-practitioners have insight into education issues. But it seems strange that they are so dominant, and the effects of this are considerable, usually to the bad. I don’t expect to be automatically heeded about how we should teach writing because I am a practitioner, but it’s also scary to think my ideas might be dismissed because of it.

Here’s something scarier, as compared to K-12 education, higher ed is at a relatively early stage of being remade by non-practitioners.

Maybe we should look at how well -- meaning how disastrously -- this process has gone in K-12 before we get much farther down this road.

[1] When it comes to marketing the books, I imagine the approach will be to present me as someone who is a little bit inside the world of education, but also significantly outside, an apostate who has come to know the truth of what’s happening. This will be somewhat accurate, but obviously oversimplified, and even more frustrating, it should be unnecessary, the ideas in the books should rise or fall on their merits. That’s not how this stuff works, though.

[2] Ripley and Carey are both associated with New America, a centrist think tank aligned with the mainstream part of the Democratic Party.

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