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The Tyranny of Experts

ORGANIZED UNDER: Faith // Homeschooling // Life // Parenting

Maybe it’s because I’m a boomer, but I seem almost genetically predisposed to be skeptical of authorities and experts.

Spending most of my life reading and thinking about history has only confirmed my skepticism. I’ve lost track of how many times I have encountered a historical opinion by an “expert,” which, upon closer examination, has turned out to be wrong.

We live in an age tyrannized by experts.

The prevailing cultural pattern is that almost any dispute is settled by an appeal to an expert. My experience and your experience don’t count. Facts don’t count. What the “experts” say is what counts. My mind is made up, don’t confuse me with the facts. The science is settled.

To which the only proper response is to quote John Adams, “Facts are stubborn things.”

Now, I don’t want to disparage or dismiss all experts. There is wisdom in recognizing someone who has specialized experience, or a history of success, or a reputation for wisdom. But many of the so-called experts that we are asked to defer to have none of those qualifications.

Homeschoolers and the "Experts"

Homeschoolers are not immune from the tyranny of the experts. In fact, all of us have, at times, suffered from expert-derangement syndrome. Any parent attempting to educate their children is trying something new and unfamiliar. It can be scary. No, scratch that, it is downright terrifying. What if I mess them up? What if I teach them something wrong? What if I leave out something important?

Will they be ruined for life? ARRRGGGHHHH!

As gently and as calmly as I can, let me reassure you. For several VERY important reasons I want to set you free and remind you (and myself) that we do not need to be tyrannized by the experts.

The Parent of Educational Tyranny

First, let me point out that educational tyranny is a subset of child-rearing tyranny. Yes, the decision to educate your own children is new and unfamiliar. But do you remember what it was like when your first child was born? THAT had to have been new and unfamiliar. And scary, if not downright terrifying. What does it mean when they cry? How do I tell if they’re sick? How do I tell if it’s serious? Why won’t they eat some things? Why won’t they sleep at night?

For every one of those questions, there is an answer from an expert. And almost all of the expert answers are wrong. The real experts are not the gentlemen in the three piece suits, no matter how many books (red or otherwise) they’ve written.

The real experts are older moms and dads who have successfully raised children. In most cultures, these people are called grandparents. On almost any question about child-rearing, I’d take the opinion of a successful grandmother over an expert nine times out of ten. Why, the expert might even be our own parents. It is a beautiful illustration, an anecdote from Mark Twain, who famously observed:

When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But, when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.

In cases where our own parents are disqualified as experts (and I recognize that there are some), I would turn next to aunts and uncles or to godly, settled, older women in the church. Seeking the wisdom of  older men and women in the church is a biblical pattern. They’re not called “elders” for nothing.

Childrearing "Experts"

It may be easier for us to clear our heads about expert tyranny in education by stepping back and thinking about expert tyranny in childrearing. For 65+ years we’ve been tyrannized by (among others) Dr. Spock (not the guy with the pointy ears from Star Trek – that would be MISTER Spock). Dr. Benjamin Spock published a highly influential book in 1946 titled Baby and Child Care. It continues to sell well, with over 50 million copies having been printed. There’s a lot of common sense in the book, and some helpful reminders about being patient with children and treating them with respect.

I admire especially, one of his messages to mothers: “you know more than you think you do.” Dr. Spock’s ideas on child-rearing have been criticized as too permissive, and perhaps they are.

Of far greater concern to me are two less apparent presuppositions of his book. The first is that he was the great popularizer of Freud in the US. Freud believed that adult neuroses were almost always sexual and that they were rooted in unhappy childhood experiences. For Freud, the great tragedy of human existence was the repression of our innate desires. Dr. Spock believed these notions deeply. His book is steeped in the ideas.

These notions directly contradict the biblical teaching on the nature of man. The Bible is clear in its anthropology. Man is fallen and flawed. His desires are suspect. Not every desire is good. Not everything desired is good. Our desires are deeply dysfunctional. Not just our children’s desires by the way, but ours too. Parents and children alike are fallen, sinful, and in need of forgiveness.

Freud taught that the repression of our desires led to mental illness. The Bible teaches that the indulgence of certain desires (either intrinsically, or in an improper setting) is sinful. Which worldview is the better attested by the evidence?

Which one is confirmed by the evidences of history?

But Dr. Freud and Dr. Spock are modern experts, and who are we, mere uneducated laymen or clergymen, to argue with them? They’re experts after all. (Let the reader understand that these sentences are intended to be sarcastic and ironic!)

And that brings me to my second concern about Dr. Spock’s book on child rearing. Its popular reception and adoption, and the accolades and speaking tours to which it propelled Dr. Spock, reveal an unquestioned acceptance of the idea that child-rearing experts have all the answers for us. Dr. Spock’s book revealed and then reinforced a culture that was willing to reject the wisdom of our elders in favor of the precepts of the latest popular “experts.”

Our Reponse

The tyranny of the experts depends upon the acceptance of the myth of progress – indeed, it is a corollary of it. The unspoken assumption underlying both notions is, “That might have been good enough for grandma, but it’s not good enough for me!”

But history contradicts the notion of progress. The passage of time has not led to better and better methods of child-rearing. It has led, instead, to one child-rearing fad after another. These fads have been all over the spectrum from highly rule-driven and regimented to irresponsibly permissive and passive. But the common error of all them has been to cede all authority and wisdom to the so-called experts.

The child-rearing experts of the past 65 years do not have anything like a track-record of success.

Do we believe that children are better reared now due to the influence and insights of the experts? Or could there perhaps be some wisdom from prior generations that we should seek to recover? Were the children of a century ago reared better or worse than today? Are children better or worse behaved than a century ago?

Robert G. Shearer is the husband of Cyndy Shearer, the proud father of 11 children, an Elder at Abundant Life Church, Director of the Francis Schaeffer Study Center, Publisher of Greenleaf Press, and vice president of the Tennessee Association of Church-Related Schools. He has been a college professor, a marketing VP, a demographer, a healthcare planner, a publisher, an author, and a small business owner. He has been reading, writing about, pondering, musing, and reflecting on the lessons of history (Ancient, Medieval, & Modern) for over thirty years. You can find Rob on the internet at GreenLeafPress.com and RedHatRob.com.

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