Proyecto Visión 21

There is no room for experts in a narcissistic society (and that’s dangerous)

Francisco Miraval

Several years ago, when my son was still in high school, one day he returned home with a very low grade in his Spanish test, a language that represents no problems for him and that it is also my native tongue. Intrigued and upset, I asked him to show me the test. I saw it and I was surprised to discover that all his answers were correct.

Yes, he did get a bad grade and, yet, he wrote down the correct answers, be in in Spanish or when translating from Spanish to English or from English to Spanish, or vice versa.

Because of that, I asked to speak with his Spanish teacher and, a few day later, I met with the teacher. I explained the situation to her and I asked her why my son received a low grade when his answers in the test were correct. I will never forget what that teacher said to me that day:

“Mr. Miraval, you don’t understand. I studied Spanish for six months in Barcelona”.

Six months! As I said, Spanish is my native language. In addition, I studied Spanish every year at school for 12 years and then I studied it for seven more years (seven years!) in college. I am also a certified language instructor and I have decades of experience as a professional translator, from sermons to community events to live theater.

According to the teacher, her “six months” were, in her opinion, undoubtedly superior to my studies and experience. She even suggested that perhaps I needed to learn Spanish.

I have faced similar situations many times. For example, after a presentation about the emerging future at a local college, one of the attendees came to me and asked me which book (“book”, in singular) I read for the presentation because she wanted to read the same book so she could offer a seminar about the same topic a few days later. “This coming Saturday”, if I remember correctly.

And somebody (whom I know personally) spent two weeks in Mexico and, being that his only international experience, suddenly organized talks about “Mexican-American international relations”. “But I watched many YouTube videos”, he told me.

For a long time, I didn’t understand that situation, but I recently discovered Tom Nichols’ The Death of Expertise. I know now the age of experts (those who dedicated thousands of hours for many years to master o topic or activity) is now over.

An old tango, Cambalache, said decades ago that “an ignoramus and a great professor are now the same”. And according to Nichols, that’s exactly what is happening. (For details, see an article about him in the latest number of Harvard Magazine.)

Basically, according to Nichols, easy access to information and a narcissistic mind create the illusion of knowledge and generates an “aggressive ignorance” that prevents people from learning and from recognizing what others know. “Ignorance is insolent”, my grandmother often said. I am not an expert, but I think ignorance is also dangerous.

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