Thursday, March 21, 2013

A Plea for Authority

A university is a place where some people, often the faculty, have developed expertise and sophistication on a particular area of knowledge and inquiry. They are likely to be lay persons outside their area, but perhaps they know a good deal about adjacent areas (or not). If the faculty is a research faculty they have contributed to that area, and have a good feel for what is valuable. They have warranted authority.

Some faculty claim expertise outside their realms of strength and competence. They have what might be called borrowed authority.

Here I am concerned with warranted authority. In most fields there are areas where scholarly judgment is remarkably stable, perhaps divided into a few main schools. One may hold a position in those areas but it is not a matter of opinion. It is a matter of mastering the ways of thinking and argument. You are welcome to choose one of the schools, but it is unlikely that you will find your well thought out position is outside one of the schools, although you may be able to synthesize.

My point here is that if you go to a university, and are a student, you will find that whatever expertise and strength you have, unless it is in the area of your study, you will find that your opinions do not count for much, your strengths do not allow you to claim expertise in the the focal area of your study.

You may be very successful as an entrepreneur, but that does not mean you really understand modern economics. You may be a successful manager, but theories of management and business will not be defeated or supported by your personal experience. You may be a prize-winning playwright, but you are unlikely to have your understanding of Shakespeare be taken very seriously unless you have mastered a great deal about literature and culture of his time. And you may be a terrific and wealthy inventor, but that does not mean you can make advances in computer science or electrical engineering even if your invention depended on those fields. You may even receive an honorary degree, but that does not mean the faculty wants to have your articles published in their journals.

There are wonderful exceptions, but they are rarer than I would like. Warranted authority is hard-earned, readily squandered, and hard to imitate.