"The expert is an ignoramus." McLuhan and Postman both derided the expert. They characterized the expert as one who strips context away from his own small field of expertise. The expert looks at the figure and ignores the background. This makes sense, given McLuhan’s and Postman’s own areas of expertise and their constant call for attention to the environments that technology is creating. Environment is context.
But McLuhan and Postman weren’t alone. None other than G K Chesterton also derided the expert. In his book, Orthodoxy, he writes, “Our civilization has decided, and very justly decided, that determining the guilt or innocence of men is a thing too important to be trusted to trained men. It wishes for light upon that awful matter, it asks men who know no more law than I know, but who can feel the things that I felt in the jury box. When it wants a library catalogued, or the solar system discovered, or any trifle of that kind, it uses up its specialists. But when it wishes anything done which is really serious, it collects twelve of the ordinary men standing round. The same thing was done, if I remember right, by the Founder of Christianity.”
Postman argues that one cannot be an expert about “childrearing, lovemaking, and friend-making.” Sorry Dr Phil.
The expert is created for one purpose, Postman argues, and that is to solve a particular problem. To say nothing about how the problem is understood or whether worthwhile questions are being asked. But the expert brings expertise—a very narrow vision—to bear on old problems, examining only "relevant" information and ignoring the rest. But the expert can become myopic, telescopic, microscopic. This is the weakness of the expert.
We don’t typically think about expertise as having weaknesses. Experts are honored for their clearsightedness, not derided for their myopia. And while their research do indeed provide valuable insights, their narrow focus can distract our attention like a good magic trick. Like everything, the benefits of an expert come at a cost.
The illusions of expertise don’t have us totally fooled, fortunately. Consider characters like Matlock, House, and Sherlock Holmes. They all defy expertise with an instinct for examining the context—the environment—for details, details to determine guilt, discover the cause of disease, or solve the mystery. We know—somehow, somewhere—our collective culture knows that we need more than expertise.
We do have a place for this kind of knowledge. We call it wisdom. And while I wouldn’t exactly call House’s instincts “wisdom,” I do think his instincts are learned. Wisdom is often defined as insight borne of long experience. It’s grounded in context, and can’t be uprooted from it.
Good proverbs have this sort of earthiness in them. They often use concrete imagery and nature metaphors—context. They draw us out of our byte-sized information and open up the world. They bring the wide world into our small one. And as we hold together these two worlds, we become the connection between them.