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The “Naïve Expert” Problem in Market Paradigm and Education Reform

In a letter written to Charles Thompson in 1787, Thomas Jefferson stated: “The moment a person forms a theory, his imagination sees, in every object, only the traits which favor that theory.” The dangers inherent in the ideologue may have been central to Jefferson’s faith in democracy wedded to his personal and political commitment to the necessity for universal public education.

Without a well-informed citizenry, what chance did democracy have to seek the ideals standing before humans—ideals such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

Rarely do those of us fortunate to be living in that democracy—that possibility—have the discussion about the inherent tension between whose voice matters (every adult holding the equal power of one-person-one-vote) and the disproportionate weight of expertise.

Nested in the education reform debate, particularly within the voice of free market advocates, lies the unexamined but essential problem of the “naive expert”—a problem at the heart of free market reform as well as democracy itself.

The Rise of the “Naive Expert”

I grew up in a “children are to be seen not heard” household. Childhood was a years-long lesson in knowing ones place.

The idealism behind American democracy, however, is a quite different message: Everyone’s voice matters (at least everyone over 18).

Much blood, sweat, and tears have been shed to insure that every American can speak freely and vote directly. We must never forget when race was a barrier to the poll booth, when gender was a barrier to the poll booth.

And with those realities in mind, it is tremendously difficult to raise the problem that ideal creates concerning whose voice should matter.

Let me offer a couple provocative examples first.

Let’s say I have a serious heart condition that requires medical care. Do I want everyone’s opinion on my care to weigh equally—even lay people with no medical experience or expertise?

I want the consensus of not just doctors, but a few elite heart doctors. One-person-one-vote falls apart when expertise is essential.

But what about voting? I asked my introductory class recently if they wanted neo-Nazis voting in the U.S. Several students very quickly were shaking their heads “no.”

In both examples, what bothers us is not the ideal of “every person’s voice matters,” but that we also simultaneously recognize the paradox of expertise.

Expertise, by its nature, creates a disproportion in whose voice should matter. Democracy and the market function toward the ideals of both when the electorate and the consumer are informed (and thus not ideologues).

Few places is that paradox more stark than in the education reform debate because in the public and political discourse about the quality of public schools and the reform needed for those schools, everyone has an opinion. In fact, “naive experts” dominate who has power as well as whose voices are the loudest.

By “naive expert,” I mean people who have little or no expertise or experience in a field but have attained authority in that field or feel credible themselves in their role as “naive expert” (often directly discounting the credibility of people with experience and expertise because of that experience and expertise, including marginalizing those with experience and expertise as the “status quo”).

Those of us with experience and expertise in education have been vocal about the obvious problem of disproportionate power being held by celebrity “naive experts” such as Bill Gates (whose billions lend him credibility despite his lack of expertise in education), Arne Duncan (whose political appointments bestow expertise upon him in lieu of any background in education), and Michelle Rhee (whose expertise also rests primarily on appointments, but has been bolstered by her own self-promotion and the cult of personality rising from that).

But the greater problem for education, democracy, and the market remains in the opening quote from Jefferson and the need for one-person-one-vote to include the highest possible level of competence within each person exercising her/his voice.

Education Stakeholders, “Naive Experts,” and the Market v. Democracy

Setting aside the failure of allowing “naive experts” such as Gates, Duncan, and Rhee to drive education reform, we are left with a much deeper problem connected to democracy and the market—the voices of the “naive experts” I encounter often when I publish my expert views on education. One typical example is Sherrie273, who recently posted a comment that captures this problem perfectly:

“I have 13 years of public education experience as a public education student. I have 21 years of experience with the public education system as an informed adult citizen. I have 6 years of public education experience as a parent. I have roughly a year of public education experience through my teacher preparation program (including observations and student teaching). And I have 5 years of public education experience as a substitute teacher. The fact that you think your public education experience trumps mine because you are a full-time teacher, and I am not yet is actually strong evidence that you are the one who is discussing things from a narrow (and frankly quite arrogant) perspective.”

Sherrie273 is no education expert when compared to teachers with 20-30 years of experience, but she is the type of “naive expert” who makes simple denunciations of Gates, Duncan, and Rhee not so simple after all. Sherrie273 is sincere and engaged, more so than many stakeholders in education.

Shouldn’t all the stakeholders in education (and that would, of course, be everyone) have a voice? Shouldn’t the institution of public education that is serving the whole of democracy be accountable to those stakeholders?

These seem like questions with obvious answers, but I must argue that the answers are not so clear—primarily because we are talking about the minds of children (what about children in homes where their parents’ choices are detrimental to the child and the beliefs that child embraces?) and especially because we are a consumer culture trapped in an idealized view of market forces, the power of the consumer, and the allure of “choice.”

Crack cocaine is the product of market forces driven by a consumer base that powder cocaine did not fulfill. Again, this is a provocative example, but it highlights the dangers of idealizing market forces (the power of the consumer to “vote” with her/his pocket book) without regard to the ethical implications. In the school choice argument, for example, what about the white supremacists who choose to use tax dollars in a voucher to create an all-white charter or private school to inculcate racists views in the students?

How then—whether we are wrestling with the education reform debate or seeking an educated populace so that our democracy and our consumer culture can achieve the ideals we envision—do we honor the sanctity of every voice while not sacrificing the power of expertise?

“The world of culture, which is also the world of history, is the world where freedom, choice, decision, and possibilities are only possible because they can also be denied, despised, or refused,” explains Freire (1998):

“For this reason, the education of women and men can never be purely instrumental. It must also necessarily be ethical [emphasis added]. The obviousness of this requirement is such that it should not even be necessary to insist on it in the context of technical and scientific education. However, it’s essential to insist on it because, as unfinished beings, conscious of our unfinishedness, we are capable of options and decisions that may not be ethical. The teacher of geography who truncates the curiosity of the student in the name of the efficiency of mechanical memorization hampers both freedom and the capacity for adventure of the student. There is no education here. Only domestication.” (pp. 56-57)

The issue then becomes not only about whose voice matters and how expertise infringes on that ideal, but the nature of “ethical”—how an amoral market system decays a democracy:

“Globalization theory, which speaks of ethics, hides the fact that its ethics are those of the marketplace and not the universal ethics of the human person….Its fundamental ideology seeks to mask that what is really up for discussion is the increasing wealth of the few and the rapid increase of poverty and misery for the vast majority of humanity….It is my hope that the world will get over its fascination with the end of communism and with the fall of the Berlin wall. And thus remake itself so as to refuse the dictatorship of the marketplace, founded as it is on the perverse ethic of profit.” (Freire, pp. 114-115)

The irony of advocacy from free market “naive experts” is that their calls for choice exclude the choice of rising above the market paradigm—and then is about no choice at all. The market prefers “domestication,” in fact.

And thus, the great irony of this all is that each and every human, always trapped in a state of learning, a state that is essential to teach, is a “naive expert.”

It is not a matter of whose voice matters, but about unmasking the power of the market to distort and even silence those voices—all in the name of choice.

Calls for the invisible hand of the free market to reform education is a myopic position that fails to see the evidence—evidence that consumerism bends to “the perverse ethic of profit.” A “universal ethics of the human person” is couched in democracy, not the market.

We currently fail to acknowledge this distinction as we also fall victim to Jefferson’s recognition of the ideologue. Ours is not to fear the “naive expert” (who is each of us), but to challenge the ideologue while embracing our naive selves and choosing humility over unwarranted arrogance.

Every voice must count as it is the tension between the learned and the learning that insures the rise and spread of the educated class. The antithesis of this democratic promise is the base choice of the market dynamic.

While the market and democracy benefit from informed consumers and an informed electorate, we must be vigilant that the market serves our democracy instead of our democracy serving the corporate good as it does today.

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About The Author

Associate Professor

P. L. Thomas, Associate Professor of Education (Furman University, Greenville SC), taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. He is a column editor for English Journal (National Council of Teachers of English) and series editor for Critical Literacy Teaching Series: Challenging Authors and Genres (Sense Publishers), in which he authored the first volume—Challenging Genres: Comics and Graphic Novels (2010). He has served on major committees with NCTE and co-edits The South Carolina English Teacher for SCCTE. Recent books include Ignoring Poverty in the U.S.: The Corporate Takeover of Public Education (Information Age Publishing, 2012) and Parental Choice?: A Critical Reconsideration of Choice and the Debate about Choice (Information Age Publishing, 2010).He has also published books on Barbara Kingsolver, Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, and Ralph Ellison. His scholarly work includes dozens of works in major journals—English Journal, English Education, Souls, Notes on American Literature, Journal of Educational Controversy, Journal of Teaching Writing, and others. His commentaries have been included in Room for Debate (The New York Times), The Answer Sheet (Washington Post), The Guardian (UK), truthout, Education Week, The Daily Censored, OpEdNews, The State (Columbia, SC), The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) and The Greenville News (Greenville, SC). His work can be followed at and @plthomasEdD on twitter.

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