Unenlightenment & Elitism

(Photo by James Clarke from Unsplash)

I’m giving a talk for Sian Bayne’s group up at Edinburgh this week, exploring the idea of the unenlightenment and open education. I’m using the talk to explore some of the ideas myself, so if you’re going, don’t expect coherence or polish. My main pitch is that we are experiencing a different attitude towards knowledge, experience, education in large parts of the population. This is particularly apparent with the successes of Brexit and Trump, which made this mistrust of expertise a key part of their campaigns. But it isn’t a ‘how did Trump happen?’ talk but rather an exploration of the various cultural phenomena that have give weight to this attitude.

I’ll explore some of those in later posts, but before I do I want to get in a couple of caveats, or rather flags to myself of things to avoid. The first is to avoid any romanticising of the past as some Camelot for intellectuals. There has always been a suspicion and mistrust of experts, and this is actually pretty healthy. One of the key factors in the rise of the unenlightenment is the manner in which experts over-stretch themselves, and think expertise in one area (say in running a tech software company) gives expertise in another (politics, social care, etc). We should be wary of experts when they stray outside of their narrow domain.

The second flag is related – I read The Death of Expertise recently, and while there are good parts in it, I came away with a sense of elitism running through it. Nichols for instance has a chapter bemoaning the safe spaces argument and how students on campus won’t hear contrary views. And there is much complaining of students taking subjects that are not critically challenging. And at this point it starts sounding very elitist, sort of “if only everything was like it used to be, and everyone was as smart as me”. This is not what I am getting at with my talk – not knowing stuff is ok, all of us are ignorant on so many topics. But rather what is different today is a large media portrayal and cultural attitude towards the pursuit of knowledge itself. It is not that someone doesn’t know stuff, but that not knowing is depicted as a more desirable state. And my interest in this is what does it mean for open education in particular, as this is the context within which it operates. It’s an attitude that always exist, but its prevalence alters. It may be that we have hit peak unenlightenment in 2017. But as Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate accord demonstrates, the impact of this attitude can be far reaching for all of us.

Some anecdotes as evidence for the rise in this attitude are:

I’ll explore some of the contributory factors in later posts (eg like disruption), but if it wanders into romanticising the past or being elitist, then please sound the klaxon (politely).


  1. Excellent. I wish I could go to this talk. Retirement doesn’t pay the train-fare unfortunately.

    I suppose my only concern with your plans so far is that the anti-expert (and anti-intellectual) camp – Gove, Trum etc. – feed off an unexamined notion of what constitutes an expert and/or a ‘intellectual’. I feel that may be compounded if you stress too much the issue of only trusting experts who specialise in one thing (discipline or group of disciplines), as your post seems to suggest.

    The relationship of expertise to specialisation is a complex one and is based on a notion of creating specialist identity (and hence is in the humanist camp very strongly critiqued. You’ll find Edinburgh and Sian hasn’t much time for as an ideology of unitary identity, which is how they recognize humanist specialisation. A post-humanist perspective sees expertise as a provisional means to an end, that awaits completion only in its ongoing reception and is therefore radically incomplete. This doesn’t mean we can’t value intellectuals or experts but it suggests that we have to theorise them EITHER in relation to their focus on maintaining the status-quo and self-interested privilege OR in changing it.

    I don’t think Edinburgh would agree with me but I think the formulations of Gramsci so useful here (when not simplified by Althusser). The notion of an ‘organic’ (I prefer ’embedded intellectual or expert’) speaks to the role of the expert in alliance with challenges to distributions of elite power in the status quo.

    No doubt there will be subtler formulations in Bourdieu with reference to ‘habitus’.

    The implications for the OU arte massive but one feature of the current problem here is the retrograde function of special,ist disciplines and faculties in implementing change and the refusal to challenge the ‘authority’ role of AL-function first examined by Sian in her 2005 essay. The key book is Knox, J. (2016) ‘Posthumanism and the Massive Open Online Course’. London, Routledge buth a lot of Sian’s bolgs may fill that gap too. Have you looked at this?

    All the best as ever


  2. Is it a different attitude to knowledge/what counts as knowledge? I am wondering whether rather than thinking about this as Unenlightenment, it is actually people continuing to apply the rationale of enlightenment [in the sense of objectivity as an end goal – sorry this is very simplistic really] to a world where it is increasingly clear?/obvious? that knowledge is always situated and partial (to paraphrase Donna Haraway). And so it is easier/more comfortable to dismiss the complexity [and questions everyone’s objectivity] rather than acknowledge and consider knowledge as situated and partial and take into account the uncertainty and the way knowledge is continually created and contested.

    1. Hi Kathrine – that’s a good point, and one of the factors is that what we regard as ‘truth’ has been made more complex. This is a good thing generally – the absolutist statements of knowledge have usually hidden further complexity. But what I think we are seeing is that it experts and knowledge institutions are seen as part of a conspiracy of the elite, and therefore to be dismissed. It is not the case that the Alt-right for example are arguing that truth is complex but rather that any opinion is the same as evidence. Or for climate change deniers, one opinion carries the same weight as 1000 experts because all expertise is dismissible. But I think they inherited some of this from the post-modern approach to knowledge – which is not a criticism of that approach, but rather when we are having very in depth and nuanced discussions about what constitutes knowledge and truth, charlatans will hijack the “all truth is relative” type statement to mean “I can choose whatever I want to be true”. Your last point about it being more comfortable to dismiss is spot on I think – one of my factors is “the future is scary”, and I think people have an understandable response to retreat to a state when they felt things were more knowable, and simpler. Have I interpreted what you were getting at correctly? Apologies if I’ve misunderstood. Thanks for the comment

  3. Father of modern US conservatism William F Buckley famously said (in the early 1960s):

    “I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.”

    Edmund Burke said something in a similar vein in the 1790s:

    “A Statesman differs from a Professor in an University. The latter has only the general view of society; the former, the Statesman, has a number of circumstances to combine with those general ideas, and to take into his consideration. Circumstances are infinite, are infinitely combined, are variable and transient: he who does not take them into consideration, is not erroneous, but stark mad — not operationally insane — he is metaphysically mad. A Statesman, never losing sight of principles, is to be guided by circumstances, and judging contrary to the exigencies of the moment, he may ruin his country forever.”

    But exactly the same thing concerned Donald A Schön (who was a brilliant epistemologist) in ‘The Reflective Practitioner’. How do experts know what they know – and what is academic knowledge.

    FA Hayek in his famous ‘Pretense of Knowledge’ also contrasted expertise with common sense (notably his own).

    Another book to look at is Harry Collins’ ‘Rethinking Expertise’ – where he defends it but from the perspective of a sociologist of science.

    What does all of this mean for Open Education? I would say nothing at all other than a good frame for writing grant proposals. All of the anecdotes above don’t add up to a consistent mistrust of experts – from doctors to plumbers or historians. Just look at TV, brimming with experts. People are no less interested in learning things when they want to acquire new skills or fit in a conversational community. And ads with people in lab coats are still just as effective.

    However, what Michael Gove (despicable human being that he is) was reflecting on was the mistrust of experts as predictors of the future and as adjudicators of value. And so did Trump. The problem with Trump is that he is (as many successful CEOs) almost a complete idiot. Not with his flexibility with facts or odious ideology. Lakoff’s ‘Moral Politics’ could be a good framework, here. It is important to articulate a moral world view. Also, see this post on an analysis of anti Trump reporting: http://slatestarcodex.com/2016/11/16/you-are-still-crying-wolf.

    I think this quote by Dan Hopkins sums it up:

    “Immediately after the Brexit vote, British political scientist Rob Ford offered a thought that seems fitting here. He asked whether people were feeling like strangers in their own country — and said that’s how people voting for Brexit have felt for years. Seems like it has an analog here in the States.”

    Partisan attitudes are present within as well as outside expertise. Let’s not forget that the guillotine was as much a product of the enlightenment as the encyclopedia. And that support for eugenics was once as much de rigueur as being against it is now (by the same type of expert). People often cite the Scopes trial as one of the first battle of science vs superstition – but it was no such thing. Almost all the stuff being taught as ‘theory of evolution’ back then was vile scientific racism. Plus, a lot of the stuff that people pass down about the case itself is simply wrong. As is much of the stuff people bandy about the ‘theory of evolution’ today (such as that Darwin invented it – as opposed to the ‘theory of natural selection by random mutation’).

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that the poster children for the ‘unenlightenement’ or ‘alt facts’ are all very much part of a bigger narrative around who gets to adjudicate issues of moral worth (I’ve been reading Rorty on this recently and I’m convinced by the James pragmatic view of truth as only making sense within our moral obligations). What Open Education can do is be open about its moral underpinnings and try to expand its community by appealing to people who don’t usually feel welcome in the ‘education discourse’. But give who the people behind it are, I see little chance of that.

    1. Hi Suzan – thanks for the comment. Yes, this is the conclusion I’ve come to also. Trump/brexit are both a symptom and a cause of it. There approach wouldn’t have been successful if there was not already a context in which it would find resonance, but they have used different tools and media to reinforce that attitude.

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