I have argued that the worship of expertise must go. In its place we should strive for a superbly well-trained capacity for inquiry and Socratic willingness to pursue wisdom.
Nel Noddings, The Challenge to Care in Schools
In November 2008 my then 21 year old son Jack collapsed on the street. After months of fruitless testing in search of the cause for several of his chronic but subtle symptoms, a CT scan revealed 4 large tumors in his brain. Worse, an MRI conducted later showed that "satellite" tumors had developed in his spine. After several wrenching hours a neurosurgeon consulted with his father and me. To determine the exact type of tumor so as to construct the most successful form of treatment, it would be necessary for the surgeon to take a wire-like probe and insert it in to Jack's skull; to travel deep in to the center of his brain, to his pituitary and pineal glands, to extract some material from these tumors. The surgeon was obviously brilliant. His manner was aloof but responsive. He was not warm; he was not collaborative. We didn't care. He was going to insert a probe in our kid's head and extract cancerous tissue while trying not to cause irreparable brain damage in the process. In that moment "caring" for us had nothing to do with dialogue, warmth or good relational skills. It meant this doctor cared enough to know exactly what he was doing as a master of his craft.
My experience teaching adults from other countries, as the mother of a critically child, and as a hospice chaplain and community educator, has renewed my appreciation of the fact that wisdom is never divorced from content. Wisdom does not exist in a vacuum, and content and expertise are not empty concepts irrelevant to education. This is a connection that Ms. Noddings and many professionals in the field of education just don't seem to make. There seem to be two assumptions underlying the disturbing ideology articulated so well in The Challenge of Care in Schools, and in my graduate program in education in general. The first is that somehow every generation is smarter than the one that preceded it. Therefore the child's main task in public education is to re-construct the entire progress of 400+ centuries of human civilization in 12 years. And in this process of reconstruction there is the absolute, unalterable, and unquestionable requirement that no child, regardless of age or intellectual development, be required to apply effort, concentrated thought and discipline to any subject area, because, after all, "subjects" are irrelevant. The second assumption is that everyone can and should be an expert on everything. Noddings asserts that because a high school math teacher cannot answer a question about Billy Budd, the study of this short story is not worth the effort. By this kind of flaccid logic one could assume that because an English teacher cannot explain the Laws of Thermodynamics or how to map out the DNA of the genetic material which accounts for Down syndrome, such topics are irrelevant in a high school curriculum.
The intellectual arrogance of this kind of thinking takes my breath away, and explains a great deal about why students from other countries, even poor third world ones, outperform students in the U.S. Instead of worrying about their self-esteem (as if this too, is something that can be meted out by teachers rather than earned through honest effort) teachers in other countries teach - surprise! - content. Socrates said that the beginning of all true wisdom is knowing what it is we don't know. The fact is I have no wisdom at all when it comes to dealing with a brain tumor, flying a plane or the literary structure of Billy Budd. Absolutely none. I haven't earned it. And what is more, I do not believe I am the sole arbiter of whether or not subjects related to these topics should be taught at whatever level of public school. But I have read countless educators who argue that content that is not immediately appealing to children ("relevant") should be eliminated from a curriculum. Are they seriously arguing that an 8 year old has the life experience and yes, wisdom to determine whether or not he/she should learn about geometry, U.S. history or how to write a readable, coherent paragraph?
I believe I have accumulated some wisdom as a mother and as someone who worked in the health care system. My wisdom borne of those experiences tells me I had better pay careful attention to someone who knows a heck of a lot more about brains, cancer and surgery than I do. Wisdom does not just float in the cosmos or the classroom - our illusions about ourselves as "learners" in higher education notwithstanding. Wisdom is embodied in the hospital room, the airport flight control tower or the bridge construction project precisely because it involves expertise: content knowledge and making decisions based on that knowledge; not on how we feel.
Because I do not believe I am the center of the universe, I am grateful that others have devoted their lives to learning about brain tumors, airplanes, building bridges and 19th century American literature. It frees me up to do the things I have worked long and hard to master. What saddens me most about this trend in professional education is that we have teachers who can't spell, who think that Rousseau lived in ancient Greece (this was an actual comment made in one of my groups in a recent class - by a graduate student), and who, despite their illusions to the contrary, are not critical thinkers. They do not know how to contextualize what they read because the professors do not engage in these practices themselves. There is no discussion of what is involved in developing a rationale that one can apply to thinking about and interpreting a text. Instead, it's a gabfest of superficiality, personal opinion, and uninformed prejudice in which all ideas have the same validity. And somehow this kind of preparation is supposed to serve us well, not only as teachers, but as citizens who face tremendously complex problems?
To think that we can be "critical thinkers" without first looking carefully at what it is someone trying to say in a systematic and well thought out manner is not only an illusion, it is disrespectful; and, I might add, not at all Socratic. For example, I may not agree with a certain school of pedagogy, but taking the time to read their ideas carefully and consider what the writers were trying to say on their own terms - in other words - trying to understand how what they are writing about forms a coherent system, a whole - shows more respect for their enterprise than the prevailing custom of cherry-picking one liners that happen to fit my personal prejudice. There are individual notions about education I agree with in many approaches to education. There is a great deal that I agree with in Noddings. But the overall approach to these texts in many graduate schools of education lacks intellectual integrity. I cannot be "wise" about anything until I make the effort to truly understand what it is a writer or philosopher is trying to say; to truly appreciate that each writer is constructing a "whole" of thought based on a particular world view which I would do well to understand, before I lift this and that from the text.
With one or two exceptions this practice has never been required of me in my second go-round of graduate school. And Noddings' notions that content is fundamentally irrelevant, and that wisdom and caring stand apart from knowledge are not only false, they are debilitating. If every idea is valuable, no idea is valuable. If people are comfortable believing they are critical thinkers because they know how to express opinions and that delving deeper in to ideas and assumptions is a threat, then there is nothing I can do except finish out my degree program as quickly as I can and get that piece of paper. I just hope and pray that the next time my son's life and well-being hang in the balance, he is treated by a doctor whose medical training did not equate wisdom with personal preference, feelings, and disregard for the value of content and expertise.