'Beware of experts with PhDs, they might just take over the world'

Jean-Paul Sartre argued that the point of the intellectual was to be interested in everything. Joy Connolly agrees and recommends that postgrad courses should produce all-rounders who are better adapted to the real world

Joy Connolly
Friday 15 December 2017 20:01
Oxford's dreaming spires: 'We need to be more sceptical about teaching content and explore bigger questions such as why read poetry and what is the best way to design a city'
Oxford's dreaming spires: 'We need to be more sceptical about teaching content and explore bigger questions such as why read poetry and what is the best way to design a city'

When Antoine Lavoisier, the great chemist and discoverer of oxygen, was sentenced to death by the Revolutionary tribunal in 1794, the president of the tribunal is supposed to have declared: “The republic has no need of savants.” There are different ways of translating the word “savant”, but perhaps the closest word now would be “expert”. Guillotining the experts is not the exclusive preserve of the French revolution or even any one president. A more contemporary way of translating the original would be: Beware of people with PhDs.

In recent times we have seen experts derided and demeaned on both sides of the Atlantic. During the Brexit campaign Michael Gove argued that “people have had enough of experts”, mainly, it seemed, on the grounds that they disagreed with him. Here in America President Trump has preferred his own beliefs and opinions to any informed scientific consensus about, say, climate change. The public at large has been given effective permission to ridicule and ignore professors.

This makes me angry, because I am a professor, and a classicist to boot, a scholar of Roman literature and political thought – a member of one of those fields, like art history, that critics see as disconnected and irrelevant, non-aligned with market forces, impossible to quantify and thus somehow suspect, even corrupting. But while I in no way condone the politician’s self-interested scepticism towards expertise, I believe academics should think afresh about how we train our graduate students – and how we describe that training to ourselves and to the world.

Gove argued that ‘people have had enough of experts’ – mainly because they disagreed with him

I am the provost of the Graduate Centre at the City University of New York – the largest urban public university in the United States. When asked what a doctoral education is for, many of my colleagues at other schools would likely answer, “to create specialists in their own fields who will go on to become academics and professors and teach the next generation”. This has been the standard account since the founding of modern graduate education in the 19th century.

But I can no longer offer such a clear and coherent response. Academia must always be the space where specialists can acquire years of focused training in methods and skills applicable only in a single field of study – say, the analysis of texts written on centuries-old damaged papyrus. The reality is that, just as in music, dance, or sports, where a lot of young, highly talented aspirants will not make the cut, so too in the academy not every graduate student will become a professor. Right now, only roughly half of the professors in the United States find full-time employment in universities and colleges. Yet, I say, we need more people with PhDs.

True, there aren’t enough jobs to go around in the academy alone. But doctoral study is not and should not be aimed purely at creating academics. When I answer the what-is-the-point question, I say today’s doctoral education trains specialist-generalists, people who understand how to think across disciplines, absorb and evaluate complex, conflicting points of view, and are capable of adapting to new and unpredictable environments in the future. We live not in a rational, linear world but a world that is complex, pluralistic, irrational, impure. We academics need to embrace impurity.

In his book, Wilson points out how limited thinking in the humanities can be

Ours is a connected globe, and our curriculum needs to be similarly connected. It no longer makes sense, if it ever did, to cloister oneself in discrete “disciplines”, like French or political science, isolated and each removed one from the other. The very notion of a narrow intellectual specialisation is a relatively recent invention. Jean-Paul Sartre argued that the point of the intellectual was to be interested in everything. We need to reform doctoral education with this in mind.

In his wide-ranging new book, The Origins of Creativity, EO Wilson has rightly drawn attention to how limited thinking in the humanities can be. He grants that humans, like all species, are limited. “In our daily lives we imagine ourselves to be aware of everything in our immediate environment. In fact, we sense fewer than one thousandth of one percent of the diversity of molecules and energy that constantly sweep around and through us.” Even when we make an effort to think critically, we capture only micro-flashes of the complex world we inhabit – a synthesis of the corporeal, the material, memory, imagination, fantasy, and more.

Many humanists these days are also impatient with the “human” in the word “humanistic”, that is, with the humanities’ anthropocentrism. Wilson argues persuasively that traditional disciplines such as literary studies and philosophy cannot stand alone but need to be supplemented by what he calls the “Big Five”: palaeontology, anthropology, psychology, evolutionary biology, and neurobiology. It is not enough merely to dig into our traditional “Great” texts (important though they are) – Plato, Augustine, Marx, Darwin and the rest. Even the inventors of those “Greats”, from the Greek scholars and scientists of Egyptian Alexandria to the early modern Italians, worked across disciplines and styles, the former writing science in verse and the latter designing ideal city-states inspired by their research in theology, philosophy, rhetoric, law, and urban planning.

Bryan Caplan recently argued in the Atlantic that “the world might be better off without college for everyone”. Tests show that college students don’t learn much content, he points out; they leave college unready for decent jobs, unprepared to be something, say a surgeon or a banker or a middle manager. But humans are not things. They don’t necessarily adapt well to being one thing for their entire lives. It seems to me that the role of doctoral study is to equip academically very smart students to be many things, potentially, over the course of their lives.

Despite that egghead stereotype, the truth is that professors are the ultimate jacks of all trades, decathletes of the mind. We teach -- and what a world of complexity is captured in that word! Any good marketing professional would describe teachers as expert speakers, media design technicians, project managers, and more. We design and present the results of high-level research projects. At the department level, we run our own budgets, hire our own staff, build alumni networks. Increasingly these days, we stump for funding, pitching our ideas to foundations, government agencies, and grant organisations.

We have come a long way from the Greek legend of the pre-Socratic philosopher Thales, who fell down a well while looking up at the stars and thus became a byword for the unworldliness of the philosopher or scientist. The contemporary political attack on experts owes something to this grand tradition. The implicit message is: academics don’t live in the real world; what can they claim to know about it? There is some validity to this critique to the extent that the doctoral student is required to remain a purist, sequestered in a historically defined and fenced-in subject area.

The reality of faculty life requires many more practical skills than the rather dreamy title Doctor of Philosophy suggests. We must be more honest about this. We should take time to talk with students about the portability of the learning they are doing and the skills they are acquiring. We should invite professors who are working in NGOs and law firms and city agencies to teach or mentor our students.

We should think more sceptically about teaching “content” and explore teaching around big questions (“Why read poetry?” “What is the best way to design a city?”). I don’t want to remake professors into monsters in some capitalist nightmare, where we are all proud managers of little companies that meet market demand and bottom lines, but to remind ourselves and people outside university walls that our expertise has many worldly aspects and applications.

Joy Connolly believes we need more experts not less who have a greater breadth of knowledge

As academia became siloed in the professionalising trend of the 20th century, the typical academic probably accepted that it was enough for a good scholar to be able to converse with fellow scholars. We still need professors to talk to one another, of course, and sometimes they need specialised language to express new ideas. But we also need many of our best and brightest to be able to communicate with people beyond the academy, to make their knowledge available to the world at large – and to be able to participate in society in a variety of roles.

Faculty and students tend to believe that attention to non-academic employment – or “academic-plus” as some are beginning to call it – risks disrespecting or fatally diluting traditional doctoral training. I think the opposite is true. Even the “ac-plus” label retains damaging traces of old binary thinking. With a good doctoral education, the same one that prepares you for a career studying ancient papyri or string theory, you are prepared to do anything.

Consider the capstone of doctoral education, the dissertation. Setting aside current lively debates about its format, it is a very long project indeed, usually resembling a full-length book, taking years to design and write, involving hundreds if not thousands of pages of notes or lab reports. Completing a dissertation takes grit, passion, curiosity, and determination. It involves engaging with other people’s arguments and beliefs with an attitude I call combative respect.

Ideally, it shows evidence of thinking broadly, from many perspectives and points of view. Wittgenstein argued that if you want to be a good philosopher you should first become a car mechanic. Or I would say, a palaeontologist or a biologist, like EO Wilson, capable of paying attention to what ants or apes do, not just humans. In his recent book The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, eminent philosopher and diver Peter Godfrey-Smith investigates the alien lives lived here on earth by creatures who have existed a thousand times longer than humans. Doctoral students are people who devote immense energy, heart, and time to digging into subjects like this. They are people who at their best can think cross-human and even non-human.

But let us not forget the human side. There comes a time in the life of everyone who becomes a “doctor” that you will be on a plane and a steward comes up and whispers discreetly in your ear, “You’re a doctor. There’s a passenger having a heart attack/diabetic crisis/whatever. Can you lend a hand?” And you are – sadly – forced to reply that “I’m not that kind of doctor.” You may not be able to save someone’s life. But this sobering experience does not mean that you are completely useless for all practical purposes.

Solving the world’s “wicked problems”, doing community development, communications, digital start-ups, strategic planning, management, commerce, law, advertising, institutional advancement, consulting, policy-making, advocacy: these are just a few of the fields doctoral training prepares students to enter – regardless of field, discipline or specialisation.

So perhaps the world should beware of people with PhDs. If we weren’t so devoted to the pursuit of knowledge and to communicating that knowledge to others, we might just take over the world.

Professor Joy Connolly is provost of the graduate centre at the City University of New York

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