The UK has just lived through one of the most dramatic changes in recent history. A long-discussed referendum on our membership of the European Union brought back an unexpected result (but it was a close run thing – 52% to 48%), triggering a chain of unpleasant events and revealing deep division, dismay and disbelief. We are still trying to understand what happened and the way forward is as yet uncluttered by leadership or clarity…
The run up to the referendum was marked with televised debates, those on the Leave campaign chanted slogans to attract populist attention. Urging the disempowered to “Take back control” (without ever addressing the question as to whether we had ever lost control in the first place) they focused on undermining the Remain campaign’s use of experts to help us understand what was at risk. The public have “had enough of experts” said Gove . Such rhetoric feeds on a fundamental distrust of the establishment, which may be merited and is certainly understandable in austerity UK. The leave vote maps to the areas of poverty and disadvantage in this country.
In the US they are also facing their own challenges in the shape of Donald Trump. His popularity has shaken the status quo, shocked those observing the emerging picture in the “land of the free”. Obama, in his final year of office, has been quick to identify the underlying mood, a mood which lauds anti-intellectualism. (you can watch the whole speech here in which he sums up the progressive attributes of young people who have the tools to make the world better, to resist the false promises of the older generation who seek to turn back the clock to a “golden age” that never existed.
Expertise is not arrived at without considerable experience and reflection, experts are acknowledged by their peers because they are proven, respected by those around them. They can be trusted, not just for their knowledge and understanding. Having experts is a good thing. It does not do away with our need for critical thought or good judgement. Being an expert should not be a ticket to endless belief of mindless followers. One thing is clear, when the future is unpredictable and change is the only certainty, we need experts with the courage and the confidence to lead and the values to serve responsibly. The form of expertise required involves constant questioning, evidence, discussion and collaboration, it is shaped in vigorous communities who are not afraid to be challenged. In education we have a responsibility to provide a climate suitable to grow experts.