By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Member, Wallace E. Boston School of Business, American Public University
In a recent article, I wrote about how uninformed opinions in public discourse are not only lazy and arrogant, but also dangerous and harmful to human affairs. At the end of that article, I offered a recommendation that wise people would do well to “stay in their respective intellectual lanes” and not speak out of turn when they don’t know what they’re talking about.
It’s not lost on me that a statement like “stay in your lane” could be misinterpreted as an oppressive admonition or an attempt to constrain people in a way that doesn’t allow for intellectual exploration. I meant neither of these implications in my article, however. In this follow-up piece, I want to articulate the ways in which people may broaden their intellectual horizons and even participate in conversations on topics outside of their respective wheelhouses.
Expertise Can Be Developed in Many Ways
Must one always possess a college degree in a given discipline in order to speak coherently about it? Need one have a license, a credential, or some other official accreditation to formulate rational and thoughtful opinions on a given topic?
Absolutely not. There are many ways that a person can cultivate the kind of expertise that is typically required to make informed and meaningful contributions to public conversation. Life experience is one such way.
For example, in my previous article I told the story of my friend, who is a plumber. Now, my friend did not go to school for plumbing. But he had worked as a plumber for many years and was also licensed as a plumber. So did he possess the requisite background to offer informed opinions on plumbing? Of course.
But are licensure and work experience the only ways in which a person might be qualified to talk about plumbing? Again, no. You could watch YouTube videos on plumbing, read plumbing-related books and articles, and maybe join a professional plumbers association. It is still possible — although perhaps more difficult — to cultivate a masterful knowledge of plumbing through these methods, even in the absence of actual plumbing work or a professional credential.
Some People Like Elon Musk Are Capable of Absorbing Complex Knowledge and Achieving Mastery in Many Areas
Depending on how intelligent the learner is, you might be able to quickly absorb complex knowledge and achieve mastery in many areas. Elon Musk is an example of someone who has both qualities. Musk has bachelor’s degrees in economics and physics. But beyond that, he has no other formal education.
However, Musk has managed to build companies that have revolutionized online payment processing, automobiles, solar power, space rocket transport, subterranean tunneling and neurotechnology. Also, Musk can talk about each of these subjects with a stunning degree of scientific complexity and business acumen. For instance, Musk understands:
· Online payment processing at the level of a computer programmer
· Orbital mechanics at the level of a rocket designer
· Automobile manufacturing at the level of a logistics and production expert
· Tunneling at the level of a geological mining engineer
· Brain-technology interfaces at the level of a neuroscientist
The Mastery of Complex Topics Usually Requires an Education or Experiential Background
Unfortunately, far too many people think their own basic intuition, intelligence and life experience endow them with the requisite knowledge to speak on complex topics of endless variety. For example, many Americans have strong opinions on hot-button issues like climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, gun control and foreign affairs.
However, the vast majority of these same Americans are decidedly not experts in climate science, virology, public policy or foreign diplomacy. That is to say, they do not have the educational or experiential background that would confer upon them a credible point of view on these topics.
Musk, on the other hand, has a combination of exceptional intelligence, intellectual capacity, a penchant for learning, a tireless work ethic and wisdom in his business pursuits. Those qualities have enabled him to develop mastery in his many fields.
Many average (i.e. not Elon Musk-type) people use the ambiguous term “life experience” to suggest that their own ordinary experiences in other fields have equipped them to talk knowledgeably about complex subjects like science, medicine or policy. This is, incidentally, the Dunning-Kruger effect writ large across the population of most of the world.
Developing mastery of a subject in the absence of a formal college degree or some other official accreditation is certainly possible. But people should not assume that they are qualified to talk about anything they want simply because they’ve “been around a while” and “seen things.”
There are many people out there who are old in years but remain intellectually stunted. The inverse is also true; there are young people who are wise beyond their years.
So “life experience” must consist of something that would yield a specific and practical caliber of expertise. The bar does not sit at the level of mere existence, nor should it.
Nonetheless, just because there are many ways to develop oneself intellectually outside of college does not mean that college isn’t still a more effective way of doing so. There are many reasons why higher education is advantageous to these pursuits, including:
· You don’t know what you don’t know, and without someone to guide you, it can be difficult to know where to begin. College provides a roadmap for learning (developed by experts) so as to ensure that you don’t miss anything.
· Few people possess the drive and discipline necessary to self-teach, especially across subject matters that can take years to absorb. College provides structure and a pace to tackle it all in a realistic and organized way.
· Without accreditation, learning efforts can lack the credibility (in the eyes of others) that is often needed to achieve goals. Colleges vouch for the mastery attained by students through the accredited degrees that they confer.
· Without assessments, there can be an ego inflation effect to self-learning. With nothing to measure oneself against, it might be easy to assume a better understanding or mastery than actually exists. College incorporates assessment and scoring, which, in addition to identifying weaknesses and opportunities for improvement, also builds character and humility.
I will offer one last olive branch, which is to say that people should not necessarily fear conversations outside the scope of their areas of expertise. After all, this is how we learn new things. For instance, I have published hundreds of articles and podcasts on subjects firmly outside of my primary areas of mastery — including government, medicine, science and policy.
But when I talk or write about various topics, I make sure to do two things. First, I make a concerted effort to read, study, and learn about a topic’s basic concepts to build a solid foundation for understanding and further development. I don’t assume anything about the integrity of my own intuitions. And second, I approach these new topics from the perspective of someone who is open — genuinely open — to learning from those who know more than I do.
For example, when I record my podcast episodes, I am almost always joined by guests with areas of expertise different from my own, so that we can discuss their topics and I can learn from them. So these discussions are not ones in which I aim to make good statements so much as I aim to ask good questions and learn new knowledge.
Each one of my articles also ends with a short biography that denotes what I do and where my primary areas of mastery lie. This bio lets readers know the platform (or lack thereof) from which I purport to speak on various subjects.
Ultimately, people should not necessarily be afraid to join conversations outside their areas of expertise. But in each of these encounters, the proper approach should be with an attitude of humility before anything else. There should be a recognition that they should not give weight to their own intuition, they are there to learn, and with any such experience, they should expect to have more questions than answers.
About the Author
Dr. Gary Deel is an Associate Professor with the Wallace E. Boston School of Business. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Military University, American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.