Empowerment is Not the Same as Expertise

HelloExpertI recently read a thought-provoking essay titled “The Death of Expertise,” by Tom Nichols, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College and an adjunct at the Harvard Extension School. I’m not an expert on expertise, so perhaps I shouldn’t try to summarize his article, but the primary message I got from it is that in the Internet age, with its democratization of knowledge, the value of expertise is under attack. The theory is that since everyone can learn everything about anything, people are increasingly viewing experts as unnecessary.

Try telling that to a college counselor.

I am an expert in the process of transferring from a California community college to a four year university, but even in that very specific niche, I have a hard time referring to myself that way. Many others know more than I do and, like anyone, I occasionally make a mistake or get something wrong. But I know more than the average person does about my field, so I’ll concede that after ten-plus years of experience, a lot of training, and a lot of personal experience, I generally know what I’m talking about…or at least I know it right now. Something will certainly change tomorrow that will make me learn things all over again… and therein lies the value of experts in academic advising.

I love the empowerment of the Internet. If you want any evidence for the rapid change in our field, just think about how many printed college catalogs you found in a counseling office three or four years ago. Are there any left now? Does anyone use them? We just got rid of most of our bookshelves, since they were mostly empty. Now our department posts as much of our general information, workshop content, links, and forms as we can on our website and Facebook page, and we hope to expand our online resources in the future. In that same spirit, schools across the country are moving to implement online educational planning tools and degree audit systems. We want our students to have the tools to make their own decisions, create their own plans, and track their own progress.

But as they make those decisions, something will change. A new law or policy will move the target. Budget shifts and changing fees will reduce or expand opportunities. Courses will be re-numbered and degree requirements will change. New majors will be created and others will close. Admission criteria and processes will be revised. Technology will evolve. Most certainly of all, students will change their plans, or life will throw them a twist that requires adaptation. And all of this will happen on a daily basis.

Can some students handle this rapidly-changing information and make good choices to reach their goals? Of course, and we will do everything we can to empower them in that process. But keeping up with this stuff is a full-time job that requires immersion in the field and constant training. I wouldn’t dream that many students would have the time, resources, or perspective to make sense of it all, no matter what is available on the Internet. I’m not trying to be Luddite about it, but empowerment is not the same thing as expertise. Intelligently evaluating opportunities and obstacles requires the analytical skills and perspective that come with true expertise. Crafting new programs and processes requires expertise. Finding efficiency in complicated systems requires expertise. Knowing how to work with people to help them make good choices requires expertise. And expertise in most things requires a full-time commitment.

In this age of information, those few students who have a clear vision of exactly what they want to do, when they want to do it, and how to go about it have access to every piece of information needed to make the right choices at any given moment. But that only describes a very small percentage of students. For everyone else, expertise has tremendous value, and expert advisors are very necessary indeed.

By Robert Waldren

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