Something I’ve learned doing my MBA is that it is possible for someone to be very intelligent, well-credentialed, and clearly a subject matter expert yet show a startling lack of intellectual curiosity or talent for critical thinking.
If someone presents themselves as an expert on a subject and I don’t know them, I try to build trust in what that person is telling me. I do this by asking them a difficult question or challenge something they’ve said. The way they respond will tell you an awful lot about what that person can really teach you. I used to do this with technical experts in my previous job, and most of the time they’d fall over themselves to explain their point in considerable detail. Thanks to one electrical engineer, I now know rather more than I used to about variable frequency drives. Opposite the electrical engineer sat a naval architect who I’d often pop in and see just because he’d start talking about some aspect of his work which I’d find interesting. Other times, particularly with managers but rarely with engineers, the response would be an instant dismissal based on the first thing which popped into their head. They most likely do this because they’re incompetent; they get away with it because of their position in the hierarchy.
But I’ve discovered even knowledgeable people like professors can respond this way too. My theory is it’s possible to become very successful in a given field by applying the prevailing orthodoxy and doing exactly as everyone expects without the slightest deviation. Like this, you can become very competent in your chosen subject – until someone chucks a curveball at you and it becomes clear you’ve had no practice in dealing with dissenting opinions. Some professors clearly like their views to be challenged or a strange idea thrown at them. “Okay, let’s look at this,” one might say and a discussion ensues. Or another will say: “Ah, no. This is why you’re wrong. What you need to consider is…” But others don’t seem to like it at all, and on occasion it’s obvious they’re hearing common objections to an orthodox position for the first time.
Sadly, I think this is the future of education and expertise. Very bright people will be channeled into narrowly focused areas of expertise and discouraged from ever thinking for themselves outside the boundaries set by those who control the subject. A simple test of this theory is to listen to an expert in one field talk about another. More often than not it’s incoherent, emotionally-driven gibberish reminiscent of a protest organised by high-schoolers. I suspect the root of the problem lies partly in the pervasive culture of credentialism. If the certificate didn’t matter, there’d be no point attending a university or business school to get from a lecturer what you could easily learn by reading a book and doing some exercises. The added value a lecturer brings is the ability to go beyond the orthodoxy, stimulate discussion, push the boundaries a little, explore ideas, and get some real-world experience thrown into the mix. There were one or two classes I’ve had where I’d have happily paid just to hear the professor speak, because he had some fascinating insights into the world of business and management you’d never find in a textbook. But if the certificate is what matters most, lectures will turn into sessions where a professor simply regurgitates whatever you can find online or in a book.
The trouble with me – and there is always trouble with me – I go to school to learn, not to get a certificate. I also have one eye keenly trained on what I paid.