Amateurs, Experts, Education

“Professionalism is environmental. Amateurism is anti-environmental. Professionalism merges the individual into patterns of total environment. Amateurism seeks the development of the total awareness of the individual and the critical awareness of the ground rules of society. The amateur can afford to lose.” — Marshall McLuhan, “The Medium is the Massage”

What entitles someone to speak about something? Based on what authority do we speak, write, form our opinions, hold forth on this or that?

The university system is predicated on the structure of the expert — you must major in something. If you pursue graduate studies, you’re asked to specialize within that major: not only are you studying literature, you’re studying British 19th century literature. Why such specialization? Because this is the only way to become an expert, to exhaust a field of knowledge, all the so-called primary and secondary texts.

But the expert is, by definition, a conservative: his or her job is to conserve that domain of knowledge, to say what gets in and what gets out. As Barthes argues in “Death of the Author,” this pedagogy is built on the priest model: the expert is the conduit between the lay person and the Word.

The expert is a mortician, presiding over dead knowledge.

Ah, but the amateur is a lively bloke who pays no heed to inherited categorical distinctions. The amateur reads what he reads, writes what he writes, thinks what he thinks. The amateur makes his way on the fly without regard to official knowledge. He makes connections in surprising ways, traversing domains along trajectories no one could have imagined. The amateur strolls and meanders through the experts’ various domains, creating new byways and through ways as he goes.

If the expert is an imperialist, laying claim to a domain, the amateur is a perpetual poacher, taking some here, some there in order to create new shapes and possibilities — that may very well be washed away as the tide comes in like an Andy Goldsworthy sculpture.

And this is what the network demands — the ability, the skill, to make connections, to cross domains, to traverse fields of presumed expertise. The academy and its experts are premised on the pyramid: a rigid hierarchical structure. But the new age is an age of the network, of every which way, of all ways at once.

The academy is an embarrassing anachronism. And its gatekeepers — the so-called stars of the university — are gravediggers, embalmers, and undertakers.

What, then, will be the university of the future? What is the education of the network? Well, it’s based on skills, on how to handle information, not just memorize it. It should always already be interdisciplinary.

When I taught at the San Francisco Art Institute’s graduate center, most students didn’t study photography or painting or sculpture: they congregated in what SFAI called “new genres,” a field that considers all materials fair game.

This is not to say that one shouldn’t learn how to handle paint or cameras or learn about differential equations and chemical reactions. It’s to say that such knowledge is not the end-point, not the goal. The point of network education is to breed perpetual amateurs, those who are always taking risks, making connections that risk madness and nonsense but that perpetually flirt with beauty and the delirium of the new. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

Daniel is an independent writer, reader, teacher, and philosopher. Follow him on Twitter here.

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