by Panduka Karunanayake
The current fluid situation in the country has also brought to light some fundamental issues. Ordinarily, in the midst of pressing issues, such as what we are experiencing, it is customary to push the fundamental questions to the background. But it is precisely because these questions have been set aside in the past that we have had to arrive in this sad state today. Moreover, in an extremely fluid and uncertain situation like this, the only stable and reliable position we have left to make decisions is, in fact, with the fundamentals.
In this essay, I want to dwell on a fundamental question: the relationship between knowledge and expertise, on the one hand, and societal good, on the other. This relationship became very clear, in my mind, when I saw a post on social media by one of my university colleagues. Let me first anonymize the academic (after all, it’s not just him who thinks like that) and quote the Google translation of part of his post:
“Everyone knows everything there is to know. Everyone can express things. There are also the necessary media for this. Who are we? What do we need? No one can make monopolistic decisions on, etc. Therefore, there is no more democracy than that. What is needed now is to make the most of this democracy.
This argument implies that because we live in the digital age, where knowledge is distributed in a very democratic way, decision-making by the ordinary citizen is at a level close to, if not identical to, that of the expert. He suggests that the next step is to discover an optimal governance mechanism. At its root is the suggestion that the time has come to replace the expert with the informed citizen.
What is fundamentally wrong with this argument?
“Know” and “understand”
“Knowing” is not everything. When we were school children in the 1970s, we heard this clearly explained to us by Dr. EW Adikaram, who made a distinction between දැනුම (“to know”) and අවබෝධය (“to understand”). He emphasized that the task of education should give us the latter, not the former. But somehow, we seem to have forgotten (or ignored) this advice. This distinction is also seen in Albert Einstein’s famous quip that education is what remains when we have forgotten what we have learned – අවබෝධය (“understanding”) remains while දැනුම (“knowing”) is forgotten along with time.
The crucial point is this. The wide spread of knowledge that we see in today’s digital age, in itself, really only promotes “knowledge”. We can search the internet and find all the knowledge we want, and once we have it, we can say we “know” – apparently, just like the expert. But there is a significant gap between this “knowledge” and the “understanding” possessed by those who have studied this same quantum of knowledge, in a more systematic and thorough way.
These people study this knowledge in relation to other quanta of knowledge, so that they are aware of a more complete, interconnected and integrated existence of the discrete quantum of knowledge. For example, they then see not only this quantum, but also its origins, applications, limitations, errors and fallibilities, as well as how it is connected to the larger map of knowledge.
Of course, nowadays there is also the democratic distribution of learning experiences, such as free online courses. These would certainly give someone a much better view of the subject than an unobtrusive web page, but I would be careful and point out the important path between knowing something and fully understanding it.
A clear indication of “understanding” is the ability of the person who possesses the knowledge to apply it in different seemingly unrelated situations. It is, in fact, this very point that is now used by prestigious universities abroad when selecting students for their undergraduate courses – rather than the old-fashioned measures of superficial “knowledge”, like what we still mainly use here.
“Understand” and “Do”
Although there is a distinction between ‘knowing’ and ‘understanding’, our intellectual growth does not stop there.
There’s a whole lot of difference between just “understanding” and “doing” something with that understanding. This is because understanding occurs strictly in the cognitive domain, while its application to do something requires engagement with the real world. It requires much more – things that remain implicit in the real world around us, that are abstract only to a limited extent when written down as ‘knowledge’.
In the past, the acquisition of these real-life abilities has been given terms such as “skills”, “experience”, “common sense”, “wisdom”, etc. A more recent practice is to categorize them as forms of knowledge as well (i.e. procedural knowledge and conditional knowledge). These intertwine as a person tries to translate an idea into action, and if the person is successful, we say this has created ‘working knowledge’. Of course, only a very limited part of this is found in books or Internet sources, and “knowing” and even “understanding” is therefore only a very small part of what constitutes the intellect of a person who can actually do something in real life. situations.
“Do” and “criticize”
Even that’s not the whole story. All of these steps—knowing, understanding, doing—are generally part of “how things are,” not necessarily “how things should be.” One of the most important aspects of the job of an academic or intellectual is to assess these “things as they are” and to provide a detached and unbiased critique of them. The more conventional terms used to describe this function are “critical thinking” and “discourse analysis”. We would expect the scholar or scholar to tap into their deep knowledge of the subject matter in terms of past events, current trends, and future possibilities; to then reflect deeply, imagine alternatives and weigh the pros and cons; and tell us how we can “do things better”. It is the whole process that we call (or should call) ‘research’, ‘innovation’, ‘development’, ‘creativity’, etc.
It is the full spectrum of the workings of the human mind as it becomes progressively more functional and efficient: knowing, understanding, doing and critiquing. The training process, from primary to post-doctorate, must be designed with this in mind.
Enter ‘the expert’
There are two types of skills. The first is routine expertise, which is the ability to perform a certain task repeatedly with minimal errors. It is built through systematic learning with feedback, diligent practice and extensive experience. The second is adaptive expertise, i.e. the ability to deal with new and unprecedented situations where there are no or few known standard procedures (and therefore no routine expertise) and to offer innovative solutions that make it possible to get out of it. It is constructed, in addition to the above, through reflective practice and the experience of innovative and creative behaviors.
It’s not hard to see that in recent years we’ve needed adaptive expertise – both with the COVID-19 pandemic and the current crisis. They called on our doctors, businessmen, economists, etc., with adaptive expertise, to come up and do what they know best.
These unprecedented past events, in our country, led to complete transformations of society, leading to better times (albeit after decades of effort): for example, the coffee blight of the 1870s and the devastating malaria epidemic of 1934-35. These are examples of (British) adaptive expertise in action.
The “informed” citizen
The citizen who now flees expertise is a person who thinks that, because he (or she) has access to knowledge, he has already “jumped” from “knowledge” to “criticize” and that there is no no difference between him and the expert. We must avoid jumping on this bandwagon. Care must also be taken not to dump the expert in a hasty attempt to dump the politician.
We cannot build a better system of governance using people who lack “understanding” and expertise, whatever level of “knowledge” they might possess thanks to the digital age. We need to keep these fundamentals in mind when exploring issues such as the place of democracy or the value of a constitution, the idea that the gap between people and experts has narrowed, that people can decide for themselves, etc.
Our post-independence history is a litany of how our experts failed to produce a beneficial effect in Sri Lanka while contributing to the building of other nations. The solution is to overcome the blockages that have existed so far – rather than running away from expertise. We need more expertise, not less.
(The writer teaches at the University of Colombo, where he is currently Director of the Staff Development Center. He acknowledges the mentorship of Professor Suki Ekaratne in developing many of these ideas; Professor Ekaratne founded the first SDC of the country, 25 years ago.)