At the point of encounter there are neither ignoramuses nor perfect sages; there are only people who are attempting, together, to learn more than they now know. —Paulo Freire
I find myself in awe sometimes of how smoothly and confidently some people speak. Words seem to drape perfectly coherent ideas with a clear intentionality to navigate complexity. With facts and figures and the names of books and authors quick-drawn in the blink of an eye, these entrancers are impressive, and my guess is that is what they seek to be. I suppose that’s what makes them experts, though whether this descriptor is given by others or self-accorded may be worth a closer look. Of course, there is nothing wrong with being an expert. Experts’ contributions are what help make the world go ‘round and we read and listen to them to learn and be entertained to some extent.
Speaking is different from writing because once the words leave your lips, they’re out there. Speaking is indelible. (Sure, audio editing software allows you to get the words just right, but barring that, oral expression can be unforgiving.) When you say something, there are no take backs, messages no longer belong to you. As I type these words, I can always hit the backspace key and re-work the sentence making different choices and sentence permutations. It took me four tries to be happy enough with this last sentence and in a couple days, I may change it again (as I re-read days later, I did). Even before computer word processing, it was easy enough to scratch a word or an entire paragraph out. One of the most familiar tropes is that of the forlorn lover who spends hours writing a letter only to crumple up the pages, unhappy with his prose, tossing the paper ball into an overfilled basket, only to start over with a fresh sheet. You can’t do that with the spoken word. Not unless it’s rehearsed. Not unless you’re an expert.
While spoken words are unforgiving because they cannot be deleted, written words are permanent records of your thinking. For how long will our ideas haunt us once committed to digital paper? These ideas are permanent records even though they represent a moment in time. Is it reasonable to deduce my ideology, who I am based on my articles from 2019, based on my dissertation from 2013, based on my email from 2004? I am no longer the same person as I was back then. I am no longer the same person I was when I wrote these words. Most of us recognize that others change intellectually and emotionally , of course (except in politics, it seems). Yet I don’t often notice clarifying questions before attacking a text, whether on social media or academic publishing. Vindictiveness is often the order of the day. No wonder people are worried about sharing their ideas. There is no space for vulnerability with so much shaming around. Of course, expertise serves as a protective armor.
I am thinking about all those experts on podcasts and talk shows, conferences and speaking tours. I am thinking of those expert journal articles and counter-articles, those books written by experts people hold up to justify their own entrenched positions and the name dropping meant to prove just how erudite we are. I am thinking of all those experts who duel with their ideas, weaponizing them, as if these ideas were caught in a struggle for hegemony in the land of eternal truths. And so the warrior scholars reify ideas through representation, using language that can never capture every complexities. I’m not trying to write a poststructuralist manifesto repudiating culturally semiotic systems. I am not even sure I know what that means. I just made myself a bit of word salad.
There is an insidiousness to glorifying expertise, to exalting knowledge-holding. We can see this in the classroom, where the teacher is the transmitter of knowledge and wisdom, upholding structures of domination that reward compliance, de-value questioning and meaning-making, but also serve to perpetuate the discourse of what is acceptable. Putting expertise on a pedestal, as the highest form of achievement, reinforces intellectual elitism, socio-economic injustice, and our separation from each other and the natural world. Experts hold truth and if you’re not recognized as one, you may as well sit back and be quiet, or you may just be silenced with dismissal.
(When we view knowledge as the unassailable domain of experts, we forfeit the possibility and the right to question the normative political structures of knowledge-making, thereby legitimizing and enabling the reproduction of knowledge in such forms that keep us tied to the dominant order and narrative. Ecological Reconstructionism requires a dismantling of the structures of knowledge-making and owning.)
I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t seek expertise, that being an expert in something isn’t wonderful, enlivening, personal, contributive, and worthwhile. How great to be able to learn from those who know more, from experts? How can we find flow if not within the process of developing expertise? What I am saying is that we shouldn’t glorify expertise, we should approach it with curiosity and humility. Only then might we find the openness and vulnerability to co-construct (co-whelp) ideas together, to manipulate unapologetically off the wall musings, to be playful with possibilities. Only then will we stop dueling with our truths and start walking side by side with our imaginings. Walking toward the fuzzy horizon of learning*.
When we settle within the realm of our expertise, we tend to our garden, we work the land and find nourishment in what we grow. We have all we need right here. There is nothing wrong with this, so long as we raise our heads and look toward the distance, so long as we leave this patch once in a while to explore what lies beyond our property. Curiosity is the hunger for something different. Learning is the satiation of the hunger.
We leave our patch of expertise drawing our own maps. We don’t know exactly where we are headed, we may have heard someone (an expert?) speak of what lies thither, so we make our way, comfortable with the reality that we may end up somewhere other than where we had intended. Along the way, we ask for directions, we glance at someone else’s map, we re-draw a landmark after noticing how it is shaped differently when observed from a different spot. We revel in the adventure.
We are nomadic thinkers committed to collective reimaginings because we are kin to other nomads in our tribe. We don’t have it all figured out. In our tribe, we are in it together, learning from each other, for as long as we want. This means that our companions might change, that we might belong to several tribes, that we might be alone sometimes. We are aware we ourselves are “flows of encounters, interactions, affectivity, and desire,” (see eco-feminist theorist Rosi Braidotti).
And so we will make mistakes since we are in (for us) unknown territory. We will get things not quite right, use the wrong terminology, make clumsy and insipid connections, stumble on our words, regret what we said, be embarrassed by what we presented just a few weeks ago. Yet we will also feel excitement, joy, a sense of life and energy from discovery and experimentation. We will be children again, running together and laughing, pure enchantment, wondering selflessly in what we didn’t know was out there. We will be conscious of our becoming.
This is what could be when we open up to vulnerability and elevate that comes with ignorance over the vainglory of expertise.
When curiosity and joy bind our tribe, our egos dissolve just a bit and we become open to playing with concepts, forming possibilities, co-imagining what we will co-create. Ideas become more sophisticated; who knows? their potential energy turned into kinetic energy, into action, or better yet, responses to our ever-changing circumstances. This is what happens with the tribe of travel companions. This is what is different from discussing with our neighbors, each of us peering over their respective side of the fence separating our properties.
We are made to explore, to learn, to be nomads. Those who talk about life-long learning as if it were something to cultivate, to promote—as if it were something special—do not appreciate that we are learning at every moment as a response to our context. This is what it means to be alive, we can’t help it because if we stopped responding (learning), we would die.
We learn from experts. We stand on their shoulders, but only to see farther. Rather than contenting ourselves with our so-called expertise, let’s find the joy of wonder once more, like the child we may have forgotten we were, not caring if we make mistakes or if we say something foolish. No longer experts but wondering wanderers. No longer needing to show what we know or attack and defend our ideological positions. Rather, we take the risk of vulnerability. Let’s not be afraid to make mistakes ourselves. Isn’t that what we say we ask children to do? Rather than have them grow up, maybe we should grow down.
So if you notice a nomad walking through your land, mistaking one landmark for another, naively taking one path that leads to nowhere, or not being fluent in the language of the land, do not deride them. Show them the way with kindness and understanding, grateful for their courage and the curiosity they have in what you too are interested in. You will teach them today and in return they will teach you. You and they will co-create knowledge of cognition, feeling, sensing, and intuition. You will change the affect and perhaps bring another into your tribe.
* The idea that the philosopher is the judge of what is knowledge and truth finds its roots in the Kantian school and is the exact opposite of posthumanism, which argues for post-identitarianism, intersectional relations, and moveable assemblages.