‘The Death of Expertise’: Tom Nichols offers great read for understanding our slow-motion cultural implosion

Death of Expertise cover
A book called The Death of Expertise came out not too long ago. The best way to describe it for regular readers of this blog is as follows: It’s as if author Tom Nichols read my mind and then put all my disparate thoughts on Western civilization’s slow-motion car crash into a nice package. His understanding of how modern technology, social media, and left-wing academics exacerbate the problem is, unfortunately for future generations, on point.

I spend a lot of time on social media for work, and over the years I have seen a disturbing trend take place on the internet and college campuses. A toxic brew of left-wing “social justice” indoctrination on American campuses mixed with digital echo chambers, available to men and women of all political stripes, slowly boiled. (We’ve seen the effects of this during the U.S. presidential inauguration protests, the Berkeley riots, and the insanity at Evergreen State College in Washington state.)

Mr. Nichols, however, is one of the few people I’ve seen who has a firm grasp of the dangerous social dynamics at play beneath the surface. Like your friendly neighborhood blogger, he seems to think a miracle is needed to stave off an ugly future.

“I fear we are witnessing the death of the ideal of expertise itself, a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laypeople, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers — in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all.

Attacks on established knowledge and the subsequent rash of poor information in the general public are sometimes amusing. Sometimes they’re even hilarious.  Late-night comedians have made a cottage industry of asking people questions that reveal their ignorance about their own strongly held ideas, their attachment to fads, and their unwillingness to admit their own cluelessness about current events. […] When life and death are involved, however, it’s a lot less funny. […]

The overall trend is one of ideological segregation enabled by the ability to end a friendship with a click instead of a face-to-face discussion.

Underlying much of this ill temper is a false sense of equality and the illusion of egalitarianism created by the immediacy of social media. I have a Twitter account and a Facebook page, and so do you, so we’re peers, aren’t we? After all, if a top reporter at a major newspaper, a diplomat at the Kennedy School, a scientist at a research hospital, and your Aunt Rose from Reno all have an online presence, then all of their viewers are just so many messages speeding past your eyes. Every opinion is only as good as the last posting on a home page.

In the age of social media, people using the Internet assume that everyone is equally intelligent or informed merely by virtue of being online. — Tom Nichols,The Death of Expertise (Oxford University Press, 2017). Pages 3, 129.

Boom.

Across every personal and professional level of my life I have witnessed the proliferation of this mentality. Google gives people a false sense superiority. A five-second search that allows a man to throw out a random factoids convinces him that he’s an expert when, in reality, his depth of breadth of knowledge is a mile wide and an inch deep.

Social media offers a one-two punch of perniciousness: It encourages people to dehumanize the guy on the other side of the screen while simultaneously fostering false pride and moral superiority. That, dear reader, is a recipe for violence.

Mr. Nichols’ book is by no means perfect (he sometimes shows off his own ideological blind spots by unfairly framing certain political issues), but it is still highly worth your time. It’s the perfect book to sit down with for a few hours by the pool or at the beach. Check it out if you want to better understand our widening political divide, or if you just like slightly terrifying reading material.

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Thomas Merton’s ‘The Seven Storey Mountain’ a classic for the well-read man of faith

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Not too long ago I was sitting at the kitchen table with my wife after Mass and she told me that I seemed restless. I agreed, and when we started to dig down into the reasons why, one of them was the kind of “dumbed down” Catholicism that Bishop Robert Barron criticizes so eloquently on his YouTube channel.

I sometimes sit in Church on Sunday and listen to our priest deliver the same New York Jets joke that he has used at least three times in the last 18 months. I’ll hear another priest tell well-prepared homilies that seem to concentrate on feel-goodisms (e.g., “Make someone smile and you’ll bring them closer to God”), instead of anything substantive. It’s maddening to know that there is a wealth of intellectual treasures in the Catholic Church, but for some weird reason priests never seem to challenge people in the pews to pick up a good book and read.

It boggles my mind that I have never — in nearly 38 years — heard a priest on Sunday tell me to read Saint Augustine’s ConfessionsC.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Thomas Aquinas, or a whole host of intellectual giants who have helped me over the years to understand my faith on a deeper level — and to cogently share it with those in my circle of friends. I searched out the above-mentioned authors because at some point in time I realized that I had to take as much personal responsibility with my spiritual health as I have with my physical and mental development over the years.

And it is here, dear reader, where Trappist monk Thomas Merton enters the equation. Long story short, his autobiography is a must-read for anyone who has drifted away from the Church because they received too many helpings of “dumbed down Catholicism” without realizing how much stimulating content was within reach.

Regular readers know that I am a huge fan of Saint Augustine’s Confessions and now they know that I fully endorse Merton. But what they don’t know is that one of the reasons these men resonate with me is because the flaws they both acknowledge — their spiritual deficiencies — have been my own.

Merton says:

“Where was my will? ‘Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,’ and I had not laid up any treasures for myself in heaven. They were all on earth. I wanted to be a writer, a poet, a critic, a professor. I wanted to enjoy all kinds of pleasures of the intellect and of the senses and in order to have these pleasures I did not hesitate to place myself in situations which I knew would end in spiritual disaster — although generally I was so blinded by my own appetites that I never even clearly considered this fact until it was too late, and the damage was done.

Of course, as far as my ambitions went, their objects were all right in themselves. There is nothing wrong in being a writer or a poet — at least I hope there is not: but the harm lies in wanting to be one for the gratification of one’s own ambitions, and merely in order to bring oneself up to the level demanded by his own internal self-idolatry. Because I was writing for myself and for the world, the things I wrote were rank with the passions and selfishness and sin from which they sprang. An evil tree brings forth evil fruits, when it brings forth fruit at all,” (Merton, Thomas. 253).

Who knew that a deceased monk could peg me to the wall and make me weep like no man who walks the earth? You exposed me to all the world, Thomas Merton. Touché! But I thank you, because I am better for it.

The point here is not so much to treat this blog as a confessional booth (although in many ways it is), but to point out just how imperative it is to read the best and the brightest that has ever been written. If you really want to see spiritual growth, then you must put in the same type of time and effort that you do with any other endeavor deemed important.

If you are a Catholic or a lapsed Catholic, then I highly recommend Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain. If you are not Catholic but you are interested in exploring this kind of subject matter, then I would start out with C.S. Lewis since it’s easier to step into a warm bath than a brisk pool.

Regardless which route you take, the point remains: Get reading!

Related:

Americans need to read more Saint Augustine and listen to less Mike Huckabee

The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics’: Pay a small price for the work of an intellectual giant

G.K. Chesterton’s ‘Everlasting Man’ — perfect Easter reading

‘Letters to a Young Catholic’: George Weigel hits a literary home run