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The Commodification of Education:
Knowledge & the Cult of Experts

by Wendy Priesnitz

Knowledge and the Cult of Experts
Photo © Shutterstock

Specialized knowledge has always been sought after, whether it is the valuable skills needed to successfully grow food crops or the once-rare ability to write. However, our society has commodified such knowledge and created a situation where most people believe that learning can only be obtained through schooling.

Ever since the Industrial Revolution created the need to run equipment and manage employees, our education system has been creating experts – people who spend large portions of their working lives focusing on increasingly narrow ranges of highly specialized information. In a market-driven economy, these “experts” are able to charge for access to the information they “own.” Even things like seeds, research animals, and medicines are now patented for sale to the highest bidder.

Most of us willingly pay others to design and build our houses and other buildings, program our computers, settle our legal disputes, entertain us, grow our food, and cure our illnesses. We do not have the time and interest to develop the necessary skills for looking after these things for ourselves because we are too busy pursuing our own fields of interest and expertise, or we lack the required sort of ability.

But there is more to it than that. The “experts” have an interest in convincing us that what they know how to do is too difficult, time-consuming, or complicated for the rest of us to learn. And because we have bought into the assumption that we can only “get knowledge” by being painstakingly taught by highly schooled experts, we do not recognize or value the knowledge, wisdom, and skills that we have gained, often incidentally, on our own or that has been passed down to us. So even those of us who want to build our own houses, program our own computers, entertain ourselves, or look after our own health often do not feel qualified.

We have been conditioned not to think of ourselves as self-reliant people who can do these things or teach ourselves to do them. So, in many ways, school has taught us to be intellectually dependent.

The issue is complicated by the fact that we rank some types of knowledge as more important than other types, often based on the relative amount of physical effort required or on the amount of money they earn. For instance, the ability to fix a car or build a house, which requires physicality and a tolerance for dirt, ranks lower on the prestige scale than more intellectual tasks like programming a computer or doing genetic research.

This obsession with ranking people by their expertise, jobs, and salaries extends to most other aspects of life. Sports fans rank athletes and teams; beauty contests rank the best looking women; orchestra members are ranked by the way they sit; business magazines rank the most profitable and fastest growing companies; newspapers rank the year’s or the century’s most important news stories. Being surrounded by all this comparing and ranking leads us to compare ourselves with other people – or to an unattainable (and often nonexistent) set of criteria.

If this sort of comparing and competing encouraged us to fulfill our own potential, it might be useful. Unfortunately for many people, it merely results in reduced self-esteem because we do not measure up to some “expert” standard.

“School’s ranking and sorting process prepares us to accept an adult life where the ‘experts’ are separated from the rest of us, whose jobs may be boring and uninspiring.”

Categorizing and ranking ourselves and our activities in this way begins in school, often with good intent. Poor readers are separated from good readers. Those with behavioral difficulties or different learning styles are put into special education classes. The most academically inclined students are separated off for a few hours a day for “enrichment” activities. A prize is offered to the student who reads the most books or completes the fanciest science project. Competition is everywhere, from spelling contests and math drills to the sports field.

One of the odder – and most arbitrary – ways we categorize people in schools is by age. The production line method of education requires this linear type of age segregation. It is not the most effective way for people to learn, nor is it even the best way for people to socialize. Most North American schools were ungraded until the second half of the 19th century, although they were already well established in Germany at that time. The European model came from a belief that a group of minds can be organized in the same manner that a military officer directs the body movements of a group of soldiers.

In reality, all this sorting does is hamper those students who learn more slowly or more quickly than the norm, which sets the pace. Besides, we adults do not arrange our working or social lives in that way, so why should we require it of our children? Historian Joseph Kett has demonstrated that the natural social life of American children prior to age-segregated schooling consisted of groups of people from ages eight to 22. Kett has also conducted research in collaboration with juvenile justice experts that suggests youth crime may result from an age-segregated youth culture.

At any rate, this ranking and sorting process prepares us to accept an adult life where the “experts” are separated from the rest of us, whose jobs may be boring and uninspiring. White collar (“expert”) jobs are not really seen as jobs at all, but as “career positions.” This type of work allows the “experts” to advance themselves on an increasingly lucrative career path, while blue collar jobs are seen as dead-end situations. In this type of scenario, success is defined by improved social status and high income rather than by personal satisfaction or the implementation of talents and skills for personal or societal benefit. When we allow ourselves to be ranked by our careers, we also allow ourselves to make life decisions based on what would look good on a résumé, rather than on what we enjoy doing, on what would help us grow and develop our potential, or by using our skills and interests to help society.

This is not the way young children behave. They define themselves in many ways all at once. They are dancers, singers, mathematicians, scientists, athletes, and engineers. They try everything without worrying about which things they like best, are better at, are more important in society’s ranking, or in which they have special training. Then somewhere along the way – often earlier in their young lives rather than later – we persuade them to become “experts.” We narrow their minds and their imaginations so they will begin to concentrate on a career goal, to think of themselves as only scientists or engineers. We channel them into specialties, which require specialized training.

"When we allow ourselves to be ranked by our careers, we also allow ourselves to make life decisions based on what would look good on a résumé, rather than on what we enjoy doing, on what would help us grow and develop our potential, or by using our skills and interests to help society."

Although many careers properly require specialized training, this narrowing of our focus, when allied with the expert mentality, feeds dependency on other people who are “experts” in their fields. So we consume entertainment produced by others rather than making our own music in our own living rooms. We purchase half-ripe, pesticide-laden, semi-nutritious food grown by others rather than growing our own. We even buy a prepackaged greeting card for a loved one because we do not believe in our own ability to wish them happy birthday more effectively in person.

How crippling this is for the human spirit! As a writer, I often speak to people who love to write and who are quite proficient at stringing words together effectively, but who do not see themselves as writers. Why not? Because they did not study writing at university or because they do not make their living selling words. I always tell them the truth as I see it: If you write, you are a writer. If you paint, you are a painter. If you play with numbers, you are a mathematician. And you can be many of these at the same time.

In my conversations with them, I have helped some of these people challenge the assumption that you need to be highly trained, narrowly specialized, and spectacularly talented to pursue an interest in a certain field...or to take your place among others in that community of interest. Or that pursuing your passion should be relegated to amateur hobby status while you do “real work” during the day.

Everything about our education system is geared to perpetuating these assumptions. None of it is designed to enhance the learning process or make us happier, more fulfilled people. It is designed to ensure that our little piece of expertise fits tightly into the global economic puzzle. School teaches us how to become good workaholics so we can contribute to the Gross National Product and generate profits for our employers.

Occasionally, we hear about someone who has stepped off the treadmill and dropped out of a high powered career at mid-life, having played the game but not feeling they have won much. So we have a computer scientist beginning a second life as a cello player. Or a stock broker developing his talent as a baseball player. Or a successful corporate executive enrolling in divinity college.

If only our whole society could experience the life-changing paradigm shift undergone by those brave souls who thumb their noses at the cult of experts. Few people question the fact that most of the big problems we are dealing with today – environmental degradation, ethical challenges around biotechnology, poverty and hunger, to name a few – have been created or managed by graduates from the world’s best schools. But still, we continue to revere the members of this cult of experts.

Wendy Priesnitz is the editor of Life Learning Magazine. This article is adapted from her book Challenging Assumptions in Education: From Institutionalized Education to a Learning Society.

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