Wednesday, June 15, 2005

The Day of the Amatuer

The Day of the Amatuer

Experts and professionals are the modern equivalent of false priests. They hold themselves up for our worship and adoration and we are expected to believe their every word, because after all, they are experts, right? I am not so much in the mood right now to condemn these know-it-alls, as I am interested in the solution.. the common man, your everyday Joe. Some people have said that the blogging phenomena has peaked and will one day be much smaller. I hope not. What we need is to think for ourselves, and cease this worship of easy answers and those who preach conventional wisdom.

quoteth Nibley:
Someone (this writer, in fact) has said that anyone can become a dean, a professor, a department head, a chancellor, or a custodian by appointment -- it has happened thousands of times; but since the world began, no one has ever become an artist, a scientist, or a scholar by appointment. The professional may be a dud, but to get any recognition, the amateur has to be good. To maintain his amateur status, moreover, he has to be dedicated, honest, and incorruptible -- from which irksome necessity the professional, unless he cares otherwise, is freed by an official certificate.

Do Americans have to apologize for generations of ingenious amateurs from Franklin to Ford who fathered their modern technology? Or for Ives and Carpenter, their best composers? Or for Parkman, Motley, Prescott, H.C. Lea, and the rest of their excellent historians? Is science ashamed of Descartes or Priestley, or Sir William Hershel or Father Mende Is science ashamed of Descartes or Priestley, or Sir William Hershel or Father Mendel? Arts, science, and scholarship would be in a sorry way today were it not for patrons who were also first-class practitioners in their own right, e.g., von Bissing, H. Carter, and A. Gardiner in Egyptology.

Of course there has always been protest from the professional side: the greatest discoveries in classical scholarship were made by a German merchant and a young English architect, each of whom in his time was ridiculed by the professors. Emerson, "the wisest American," was banned from the campus of Harvard for his famous "American Scholar" address, which proclaimed that one did not have to be a professional to be a true thinker and scholar.

Not long ago one of the world's greatest violinists was barred from the music faculty of a west-coast university solely because he did not have a degree, while the head of the department gave whole seasons of concerts and got away with it, because he did have a degree.

Amateur generally means a person without a degree to prove they know what they are talking about. But their opinions are just as much worth listening to. Dare I say, to be otherwise is snobbish? I am well aware that many people out there have ideas that are complete bunk. Nevertheless, I still think more highly of those people than I do of those who merely accept conventional wisdom and do not think for themselves. We need more amateurs.

There is more material in this next quote than I can reasonably comment on today. But the thought that strikes me the hardest, is that our current educational system and philosophy are geared to make paper degrees and actual learning is second. Further, it is contrary to promoting genius, primarily genius that runs contrary to conventional wisdom. More on my thoughts on that later.

Professionalism is the child of the universities. Its modern rule began with the Sophists of old. Preceding the Sophists were those wise men called Sophoi, ancient traveling teachers who gave the modern world its moral and intellectual foundations. They were, to a man, amateurs.

They had to be amateurs, for the same reason that the greatest athletes in the world, the Olympic victors, ancienetes in the world, the Olympic victors, ancient and modern, were required to be amateurs; and for the same reason that the people who wrote and directed and acted and danced in the greatest dramas the world has ever seen were required by law to be amateurs: because what they were doing was holy business and not to be contaminated by ulterior motives and ambitions.

Then the Sophists, imitation Sophoi, took over and professionalized everything to the highest degree. They were the great professors, and since they professed publicly and for a fee, Socrates, the champion of the independent mind and not one of the Sophists, advised students to examine every prospective teacher's credentials very carefully and critically before enrolling with him. That indiscretion cost Socrates his life, for the whole point of professionalism is that one's credentials should never be challenged.

Rashdall has shown how the medieval universities, beginning with wild elan and spontaneity in the days when anyone could get into the act, "quickly hardened into the mold of the university system" as administration took over.

Official credentials, a foolproof shield against criticism and scrutiny, were naturally coveted most by those who needed them most: it was the poorly qualified who clamored for the status symbol of the degree. As in the days of the Sophist schools, the great demand for this valuable commodity caused factories or this valuable commodity caused factories to spring up everywhere, competing for degree-seeking customers by making their product ever easier and cheaper to get. At the same time the degree became the object -- the sole object -- of "education." And when it reached that point, it was, of course, worth nothing.

Learning, forgotten in the universities, was revived in academies, salons, societies, courts and coffee houses where amateurs came together to revel in things of the spirit and make the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the high point of western civilization. It was the Age of the Amateur.

Beginning around the mid-nineteenth century, the university staged a comeback, culminating in elephantine growth as twentieth century technology sends everyone to school. During the first half of the present century, college teaching offered a safe birth for mild and mediocre souls who in time, by the sacred rule of seniority, ended up ruling their institutions.

Here they jealously perpetuated their own kind in office and shut out those talented students who might threaten their own supremacy in any way. The more intelligent students had always seen through professorial sham, but as the university population soared into the millions, the tension between the two mounted dangerously. It is no paradox that some of the most intelligent students at the best schools have been causing the most trouble. In fact, most students have been galled by the artificial restraint of professional status.

If the only way to get a professional certificate was to deserve one, there would be little trouble. But there have always been many ways of winning a prize for which the incompetent are willing to pay almost any price. The time-honored devices for beating the game are legion, but the most reliable one, since the days of the emperors, has always been appointment.

Everyman needs to make himself a scholar and an expert, and stop relying on others.


Janika said...

That is why I do not have a degree. Rebel, Rebel me. I am holding out for the honorary degrees. I love learning and going to school, but I take the classes I want to.

So, with the free flow of information in our modern world, what is with the cost of a degree? Yes it is about supression and control, but being the "common man" revolutionary that I am, I can see ways to beat the system.

SunGazer said...

That is fantastic. We need more independence in our thought. But why honorary degrees? Those would merely become the new necessary degrees. The idea is seek knowledge for enlightenment, not worldly acknowledgement. I would not have any degrees, though I might have tests... hmm...