It’s Time to Listen to the Experts: An Interview with Tom Nichols

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Monday, April 10, 2017


In an age in which anyone can access an infinite amount of information from a pocket-sized screen, the ability to think of oneself as an “expert” in a field is dangerously high. This premise drove Tom Nichols to write The Death of Expertise, first in article form, then as an entire book.

Nichols knows a lot about expertise. A native of Chicopee, Massachusetts, Nichols moved to Washington, D.C. to work in foreign policy, focusing on Russia, at the very end of the Cold War, later returning to New England to teach national security at the Naval War College and Harvard Extension School. He is a five-time Jeopardy! champion and former U.S. Senate aide, among many, many other credentials. Having worked with countless experts in their respective fields, in addition to becoming one in multiple fields himself, Nichols is very qualified to speak on this subject.

Tom Nichols, author of The Death of Expertise. Think twice before starting an argument with him on Twitter.

The Death of Expertise is an in-depth look at the democratization of information, and the pitfalls that go hand-in-hand with it. Why should we trust a so-called “expert” in our field when we can Google the same information on our own? From the anti-vaccination movement, to journalism, to higher education itself, Nichols finds example after example of laypeople attempting to claim an equivalent, or higher, level of knowledge as those properly credentialed in their field.

Nichols spends a lengthy chapter on the issue of higher education, the modern-day incarnation of which he describes as a four-year extended vacation package, rather than a time for study and preparation for the real world. The problem is twofold, he argues: administrators and faculty who believe their students are “clients” to cater to, and students who think themselves as smarter than their educators. In other words, the inmates are running the asylum.

The Death of Expertise is a necessary read for everyone, because it serves as a sharp reminder that there is always someone smarter than you out there.

We caught up with Nichols at a recent book signing in Washington, D.C. to talk with him about the problem of higher education, the “conservakid” phenomenon, and conservative journalism and writing.

In your chapter on higher education, you talked about how professors should stop coddling their students and instead assert their role as the actual instructors. What would you tell students who actually do want to make the most of their education?

I think those students should reach out to their professors. We notice in class who’s prepared. Every professor loves to have a student who is prepared and engaged. That doesn’t mean we want you to ask every single question in class, because there are other people in the room, but every professor is grateful for a student who has clearly done the reading, who is clearly engaged, who’s trying, so I think that’s a good relationship that you can form with faculty. Just understand that the professor also has 20-30 other people to deal with, and also understand too that, especially for younger professors in an untenured job, that they’re going to have to make the class palatable, and that requires some patience on the part of a very engaged student. But it’s a relationship that develops over time. Education is cumulative, so I think a student who is putting in the time, who’s doing the reading, and who’s coming to class – one thing we notice right away is the students are in class every time – I think there are a lot of ways it can happen.

I still think American universities are the best in the world. Let me just put that up front: this is not an attack on the American university system, because I think it’s actually still the greatest in the world, I think it’s just failing in a very important aspect, and I think students can take charge of their own education, but I also think that you should take some patience and time, because it’s not going to happen on day one.

In response to the failings of academia, there are many who have said, “Why bother with college? Is this worth the time?” They believe you can get everything off the internet, you can read books, you can figure it out on your own. Why spend the money and the time when modern-day academia is probably going to fail you?

College isn’t for everybody. Maybe there are people for whom that is the right answer, to say, “why bother with college?” The place where I think it is the wrong answer are the people who think they can replace college with self-education and receive a college education nonetheless. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is, learning is not a solitary endeavor. An important part of college is learning to talk to, and listen to, other people. The things you can do alone are primarily gaining information and reading books. People talk about the Founders as being self-educated, but they were not self-educated alone. They exchanged letters, they debated, they were in each other’s company, they read – not just the original classics of the time, but commentaries on those classics – and engaged other writers.

I think the idea that you’re going to replace college with something that you’re just going to pick off the internet is wrong. I think we’re already seeing that MOOCs [massive online open courses], the success rate of those is plummeting. Very few people finish them. Education requires a certain amount of mentorships. If people were smart enough to simply educate themselves, schools wouldn’t need to exist at any level. I think it’s a perfectly reasonable thing for people to say, “College is not for me.”

I’ll give you an example of a story. A good friend of mine spent a few years at a very good state university, but he said, “You know, what I am is an entrepreneur. I want to open some clubs and restaurants; that’s what I’m good at.” With a command of basic maths and financial smarts, that’s what he did, and he became quite wealthy. He ran a few successful businesses. For him, college was a time for which he said, “I got high and skied a lot. It was a waste of my time, and it was a waste of the professors’ time.” I think there are a lot of great careers that people can have that don’t require a college education. This “tyranny” of the college degree is something that needs to end.

With that said, the only place to get a college education is in college.

The internet allows young people to grow an audience very quickly and spread a message, for better or worse. Kurt Schlicter wrote an article decrying “conservakids” who he believed are detrimental to the overall conservative movement. If you’re a young person in a position of potential influence, how do you make the most of that? How do college-age conservatives avoid becoming the next Tomi Lahren?

Don’t mistake popularity for intelligence. If two million people do a stupid thing, it’s still a stupid thing. I think people at 24 who think, “I’m a pundit able to interview and interpret really complex issues,” that’s a very rare quality. It’s not impossible, but rare. I think this notion that simply because 100,000 people follow you on Twitter, it doesn’t make you intelligent. It doesn’t mean what you have to say is worth saying.

I think a big problem with journalism, for instance, is that a lot of younger people who have gone into writing – as I say in the book – don’t understand that blogging and journalism are not the same skill. Blogging is like keeping a public diary. I finally shut down my blog after about six years, and all that time students would say to me, “I read your blog. Can I quote it in a paper?” and I would say, “Don’t quote my blog. That guy is an idiot! He has no editor! You don’t know where that came from: that could have been me some cranky morning when I hadn’t had enough coffee!” That’s a very different skill than writing. Blogging is a way of getting things out there and sort of testing the waters for an idea and seeing what people think about things. That engagement on social media – the Tomi Lahrens and the other “conservakids” – it can really lead you down a disastrous path of thinking that your ideas are fully formed at 24. But I also don’t think anyone’s ideas should be fully formed at that age.

Do you think there’s a place at all for people like that?

Sure there is! I’m 56, but I want to know what 24-year-olds think about the world. What I don’t want to have is arguments with 24-year-olds about experience. In that, I’m going to claim 30 years of seniority, and that is where I think it gets difficult. There’s an old joke they tell in the Navy about the three things a captain of a ship fears the most: (1) an ensign who says, “In my experience…”, (2) a lieutenant who says “hey Skipper, watch this!” and (3) a lieutenant commander who says, “I’ve been thinking…”. It’s an old Navy joke, but there’s an element of truth to it.

I also think something that’s important, and this is especially important for conservatives, is that so much of what conservatives are concerned about and argue about revolve around traditional issues of the family. There are things I really did not understand until I became a father. Now I’m not saying that everybody has to have children to be able to write about these issues, I’m saying that going through enough of the life cycle to see people who have had children, to see marriage, to see divorce, to see death, and birth. That’s such an important part of learning on some of these more eternal issues that conservatives rightly concern themselves with. You’ve seen me on social media: if I seem impatient at times with a 20- or 21-year-old who says, “I want to talk to you about the big issues of the universe,” well, I was a different person before I had a daughter and buried two parents, and I think everybody is.

When it comes to journalism, there is a tendency on both sides to be in an echo chamber, and hear what they want to hear. There isn’t, right now, a lot of good longform journalism on the part of conservatives, as opposed to liberal outlets such as Mother Jones. Is this something that’s needed?

Yes, and liberals are at it better than conservatives are. There are more liberal longform journalism outlets than there are conservative, and conservatives need to fill that space, because I think we’ve internalized this notion that we’re the underdogs and everything must be accessible in the quickest way possible in these conditions of political warfare. I think that’s wrong. I was attracted to conservatism, as a young man, because it seemed to me to be the much more intellectually rigorous position. I was born to be a Democrat. I was a child of working class, Northeastern mill town ethics, and yet, I felt like conservatives were the more rigorous thinkers. I think we have to go back to that. I think in some ways, liberals are taking that intellectual high ground because we’ve ceded that to them, and I find it frustrating when conservatives become the party of emotion rather than reason.

How do you actually convince conservatives to read more when their attention spans are often in the 140-character world?

I don’t know, My personal approach to it is, if someone wants to debate something with me, and they haven’t read it, I refuse to debate it. Maybe that sounds exclusionary and elitist, but so be it. I think if you’re going to be taken seriously, then you have to act seriously. If you want your ideas to be taken seriously, then you have to become a serious consumer of ideas. I think younger conservatives are more cerebral in this way, and it’s something that gets lost over time because of this burst of conservative media. Partly that’s a kind of celebratory thing, to say, “Wow, we finally have conservative celebrities! We never had those before!” Unfortunately, it ends up being people such as Tomi Lahren who have flamed out.

I still think that the conservative movement belongs to [the millennial generation], not mine. I would like to see that passed on and carried on by younger conservatives who are much more thoughtful. I hope that’s what we’re seeing the beginning of.

You can follow Tom Nichols at @RadioFreeTom or on Facebook. The Death of Expertise is available on Amazon, and you can read the original article which prompted the book at The Federalist.


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