[An update: The friend I reference in this post has asked that I identify him. He's Eric Weinstein - very much worth following. It is both of our hope that this post becomes part of a much larger dialogue.]
I ran into a friend of mine the other day. He’s not a teacher, not involved in education except that he has children in school but he’s deeply concerned about it nonetheless. He also has a mind that can spin ideas at a blinding rate, and a conversation with him can feel like the intellectual cross between an 800 yard dash and a boxing match.
I asked him what ideas he was playing with these days and he said the following:
The coming change in this country will be between genius and expertise. The West Coast is primarily concerned with genius while the East Coast has built a fortress of expertise. I think genius is the right way to go.
I told him I had to think about this, and I have quite a bit, and if nothing else I think it’s a fascinating what way to analyze some of the conflict we are seen in various places in our society. To me, he was tapping into an old tradition of the enfant terrible, the idea of the brilliant young mind–often tragically misunderstood and doomed because of the society that could not accept its genius. We’ve had that been for a long time, and we have just enough proof of its existence as to think it’s true. It’s also a profoundly romantic idea, and Americans love romantic myths. We would rather believe in the genius of the Steve Jobs then in the work of someone like Gordon Moore.
My friend challenged me think about the ramifications of this in education, arguing that much of the current argument about teacher certification and seniority were about protecting expertise at the expense of genius. He argued that expertise seeks to stay within the box of what is known while geniuses able to invent the new and see beyond the current limits of the system.
This was a chance encounter, and I admit I wasn’t ready to have that debate right then and there.
The next time I see him though, I will tell him that I think he has created a false dichotomy. I will tell him that we shouldn’t reject knowledge simply because an idea came before us, and I will remind him that wisdom, which could be another frame for his idea of expertise, is hard-earned.
I watched when a group of people who thought they were smarter than everyone in the room tried to start a school once. They declared that “all prior language of education is tainted,” and they sought to create a wholly new language. Their school was a mess, and they repeated many of the sins of the past and a promising idea of a school failed in a truly epic fashion. Perhaps my friend would argue that they were not as genius as they thought they were. And he would probably be right. But, often those who would appoint themselves as genius are not as smart as they think they are, and the old saying of pride going before the fall is often true.
But I see his point too – if expertise is used as a caste system. If those who would consider themselves “expert” believe that their learning is over, or that they have nothing to learn from those whose life and work experiences are not as detailed as their own, commit just as great a sin. The educational community is reeling these days because so many of their “experts” didn’t foresee the coming storm of the past decade. I remember talking to a principal as we were starting SLA. He thought he had mastered all that Philadelphia education was, and I couldn’t possibly understand how to run a school because I didn’t have the expertise he had. Turns out, he might have misjudged that situation. And worse, as the rules of the game changed over the past eight years, his unwillingness to see what he did not know had profoundly negative effects on his school. I hope his successor is up to the challenge he has left.
The other problem with the genius myth is that there just aren’t enough geniuses to go around, so those who believe in their own genius fall back on a somewhat autocratic response. The Gates Foundation / Broad Foundation phenomenon in education is much like this. So many of the people who come from that part of the education world seem to think that they’ve got the answer if everyone else just did exactly what the genius folks told us to do. But that doesn’t work either, because rarely can you help a child develop agency when you have been denied it yourself.
It can take some really smart people — maybe even geniuses — to innovate. Let’s be sure of that. But the true gift lies not in coming up with the idea, but in developing ways for others to own it. We aren’t going to get four million geniuses to teach in our schools. (I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t want them anyway, the teachers’ lounge would become even more insufferable.) We also have to understand that expertise can become a prison of its own creation if it locks out new ideas and creates a hierarchy of “expert” that causes resentment, stagnation of ideas and entropy. And in the end, what both genius and expertise need is a healthy dose of humility because we should never fall in love with our own ideas, no matter how we came to them.
What I will tell my friend is that we need both and a lot more humility too. We need creativity and knowledge. We need folks who can look at problems in new ways, listen to those who are most deeply affected by the problems and then apply acquired knowledge, wisdom and skill to create the solutions we need. We need the designers and the engineers if we are going to build sustainable models for the future of our schools. And then we need good people of honest intent who are smart enough to learn from the lessons of others, apply those lessons to their schools and communities to create rich places of learning for everyone there.