From old expertise to new expertise

When my family moved back to St. Louis in 1964, our family of seven kids was reunited with another 24 first cousins. The 31 of us were spread across four families and separated by only a few miles. We saw a good bit of each other over the years. My uncles were bricklayers and electricians. My aunts had been nurses before they became mothers and housewives. Family and church and community were core.

Not only am I going to the top Catholic school in the city, I am planning on going to college and am about to leave for Princeton, a school so fancy and rarified that we all knew of it. My cousins were mystified that I would pursue such an exotic path. Why go to college at all when you could get a good job now? If you insisted on continuing with school, why not go to St. Louis University? It was a good Jesuit school and then you could become a teacher and get on with the important work of raising a family.

Maybe theirs was the better plan.

I stayed with the student route. That strategy was about doing well and going deep. Each lesson completed led to another of more subtlety and complexity. There’s a logic to this path just as there’s a logic to the path my cousins were on. But that logic is implicit. Whatever path you are on, there is an assumption that you’re absorbed the essential features of the path by osmosis from the environment you grew up in.

My environment contained nothing to osmose. I had no role models to look to, other than what I could glean from my teachers. They knew little of my background. All they could see was that I did well within the walls of their disciplines. My parents knew little of what went on inside my classes. My grades were just fine; no problems meant no need to intervene.

The structure of schools and education was organized into silos–it generally still is. Everyone stayed in their lane. Progress was a function of racing ahead as far and as fast within a given lane as possible. But the notion of staying in your lane was largely an implicit assumption. You knew that was what to do because you had already absorbed it from those who had gone before you.

I didn’t know that.

I didn’t know that the game was to crank through the syllabus and only the syllabus. I didn’t know that exploring connections and linkages between and across courses and disciplines was an activity reserved to designated specialists. I didn’t know that you weren’t supposed to pick up books that weren’t on the syllabus and wonder what they had to say about what you were learning elsewhere.

Doing these things upsets the power balance. You aren’t supposed to peek behind the curtain to see how the show is put together. You aren’t supposed to recognize that the curtain is even there.

All of those restrictions on what you are supposed to do make sense in a stable world. If the road is straight and clear, then staying in your lane is the fastest way to get to your destination.

We don’t live in that universe anymore. Deep expertise and specialization lose their power if you have to start building new lanes and new roads. If you’ve got power in the current environment, this kind of change is a potentially existential threat. The specifics of your expertise and specialization have been challenged and potentially undermined. Survival now depends on how readily your old expertise lets you build the expertise you need now. We all have to learn to look behind the curtain and build a new base.

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