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. TC mark


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  • Auckland

    Forgive me for being skeptical: I have a hard time reading “When I taught at the San Francisco Art Institute’s graduate center…” and then being able to take seriously your claim that “The academy is an embarrassing anachronism.” I mean, I understand the notion of immanent critique, but you seem to be trying to have things both ways here – identifying yourself with academic cachet at the same time as you decry it.

    Vainglory aside, I think you have some serious misconceptions about what it takes to effective operate in (and think through) network society. Your advocacy of amateurism verges upon advocacy of shallowness and shoddy analysis. I agree that many disciplinary boxes are ill-suited to the world we live in today, and that we need to be capable of thinking across multiple dimensions of society. But in order to do so effectively, we need to be _disciplined_. If we live in an increasingly transitory society, in which all that is solid melts into air, we need to be _more_ careful with our analysis, and more methodological in our approach to understanding it, rather than less.

    One of my mathematics professors made his name studying the shapes of soap bubbles. (As it turns out, an interesting surface-minimization problem with a number of applications elsewhere.) Soap bubbles tend to vanish quickly, but he couldn't get away with an equally casual analysis – in order to understand what was going on, he had to take a rigorous look at an ephemeral phenomenon.

    • jT


      I think Coffeen was saying the San Francisco Art Institute is different in their approach, a fresher way to go about education than the traditional academic structure. So much for careful reading and analysis.

      • Auckland

        These days you can't teach at any academic institution, even an unconventional one, without having gone through a professional vetting process intended to make you an expert in your field.

      • Steven Fiveoseveniam Lazaroff

        i think the point here is that in Coffeen's case, then, under the kind of unconventional vetting process befitting an unconventional institution with an unconventional pedagogy, it'd make sense that that which is signified by the sign 'expert' has changed in this new context of the San Francisco Art Institute. You're using the pejorative 'expert' against him when there are solid reasons to drain 'expert' of the negative priest connotation. whether or not he has been credentialed as an expert is meaningless; his function, his practice is the content to analyze within this SFAI community.

    • Dem0

      “Your advocacy of amateurism verges upon advocacy of shallowness and shoddy analysis.”

      No. No it don't.

      • Auckland

        Fucking come on. This article makes it sound as though the author has read a tiny bit of Manuel Castells and a tiny bit of Mark Taylor, blended, regurgitated, and added on a bit of jargon. It's practically a paean to laziness.

      • jT

        Think it was more inspired by Deleuze and McLuhan

      • Auckland

        You mean, it contained two quotes from Deleuze and McLuhan that were never properly linked in with or referenced in the article proper.

      • Guest


        listen Mr. Coffeen, vainglory aside, i am quite empirically perturbed that your article was not properly footnoted, referenced or hyperlinked, and furthermore,

      • Guest

        dude, this is thought catalog, lol

        do you expect some five billion page dissertation on McLuhan to appear here?

        the article is obviously just an intro to some ideas. people can explore them furthermore and more comprehensively on their own, if they want. yeesh!

    • Jon Cotner

      I'd be reluctant to associate “casual analysis” with the amateur and “rigor” with experts. If anything, amateurs are known for questioning — sometimes shattering — an expert's unexamined certainties. The root of amateur is amore (“to love”). Amateurs love their investigations to such an extent that they can become unprecedentedly rigorous. Just spend fifteen minutes with Wittgenstein's notebooks.

      • KY

        to love something says nothing about competence. i love renaissance art, but my knowledge of it pales in comparison to that of someone who's devoted his/her life to it.

      • Auckland

        That can and has happened – although your description of Foucault and Wittgenstein as “amateurs” is pretty questionable given the fact that both held academic posts in their fields. But long-term dedication and deep analysis is explicitly _not_ what this article recommends. Let me quote:

        “The amateur makes his way on the fly without regard to official knowledge… 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.”

        This is as clear an endorsement of intellectual dilettantism as you're going to find anywhere.

      • Guest

        auckland, read schopenhauer on dilettantes

        also, http://poemtalkatkwh.blogspot….

      • PizzarO

        Yes they are, yes they are [known for questioning…]. Of course most amateurish questions derive from the lack of insight/understanding of a topic.  (Perhaps less reluctance of association next time?!…)
        More importantly the true distinction could be that experts actually know what they don’t know, unlike amateurs. No?!

    • Guest

      ” but you seem to be trying to have things both ways here – identifying yourself with academic cachet at the same time as you decry it”

      wow, contradictions and self-doubt exist in the world, shocker, news at 6

      how dare the academics simultaneously identify with and decry the structures imposed upon them! we need more unrealistic forms of one-dimensional thinking devoid of ambivalence to stop this madness! and furthermore, vainglory aside, i do say, forthright, and posthumously speaking, that the utmost circumlocutory and steadfast mannerism aside,

  • Jon Cotner

    Great piece. This amateur/expert distinction goes back at least to Socrates, who constantly distinguishes himself from rhetoricians, rhapsodes, sophists, etc. by calling himself “a layman” and “an amateur.” Out of Socrates emerges a tradition of amateur thinkers — whom we could call uncategorizable or interdisciplinary — such as Diogenes, Montaigne, Emerson, Wittgenstein, Foucault, among others. Each in their own way is a philosopher who scorns conventional philosophy: the closed, systematic (not to mention anti-dialogical) philosophy of “the expert.”

    Experts move toward pre-established points for the sake of persuading audiences and gaining professional renown. Amateurs put great emphasis on discovery and improvisation, on active and immediate thinking. At bottom this amateur/expert distinction comes down to dialogue, which explains Socrates' key role.

    Amateurs are willing to talk, make startling connections, and stray from what they consider “true.” They'll often use vernacular language. Experts, on the other hand, are prone to repeating the same rigid formulas again and again via their ugly professional discourse. Even worse, they'll often stop a dialogue before it happens by appealing to their own authority on a given topic. I belive the so-called “crisis of the humanities” is the fault of its self-appointed guardians — experts who make these fields a little less relevant and a little more tiresome each year.



  • savagegirl

    Here's Coffeen with a stick in the hornet's nest again?
    I have benefited greatly by a self directed, open ended study of fields that do sometimes cross pollinate. Linguistics, mostly etymologies, environmental studies everything from what has been extirpated from a given ecosystem to ways of discouraging unwanted building activity, fiction by writers of my generation 1961-1978, drugs, both legal and not, how they work, drug history, drug policy, psychopharmachology, modern Japanese literature,culture and history, there's more…..
    Some of these are threads I've read on for 25 years, but it's not enough to just learn the information, for this model to really work, you must use it in your every day life.
    As for my formal education, it was perfect, not pretentious art school, more like getting introduced to three techniques or skills a week for 2 years and spending all the rest of your time changed to your bench. Perfect for learning a technical vocabulary, not a headful of claptrap. Before and I went there , I worked about 3 years with my mentor. Oh and there were about seventy or so workshops…Now I'm friends with my mentor and continue to work with her on esoterica and aesthetic voice and craftsmanship.

    • Ididyasista

      Oh well, in that case we all must be living in a so much nicer world. Thank you Darlin’! Now don’t just stand there and try to grow one of those brain thingies. -Carry on…

  • Lindseycm

    i think this article could benefit from a more detailed discussion of what the author means by “amateur”. I think of the word as describing a person who doesn't know what they are doing. clearly that's not how the author is using the term.

    • Daniel Coffeen

      I agree. This is an issue I always face: How much can I assume from my audience? On my own blog, I can demand certain things, assume certain things: I begin mid-stride because my audience is with me from the get go.

      This, alas, is not a strategy that translates well to a more general audience such as TC offers. Many of my terms and points beg to be elucidated.

      For instance, can I be saying that there is no place for deep, thorough understanding of something? Well, I hope not but, then again, I never said it.

      I never stipulate what realm of education I am speaking to, either. Undergraduates and graduate students are very different audiences. At some point, we can assume graduate students are trying to become academics — at least the academy, in the humanities, can assume that. But undergrads? Come on: our job is to teach them to think, not to master the Shakespeare oeuvre.

      This is an issue I wrestle everyday: Where to begin talking and writing? I've thought about certain issues here — full time — for over a dozen years and then another 10 part-time. I have no fucking idea what people know and don't know, have thought about or not.

      And I will say: I assume generosity from my audience — not that they like what I write — I could care less — but that they assume that my elisions are not necessarily arguments per se but perhaps mark the fact that I am speaking to a different audience.

  • PM

    This article is terrible. The erosion of the academy is a terrible loss, and an embarrassment. “Amateurism” is exactly what we need less of. We need fewer ignorant readers spouting off about topics they don't understand. The public is loaded with people who have a false sense for what they know, yet act as though they're so deep and clever.

    Sorry, but this is really a BS piece echoing a popular sentiment among those who don't know enough to know better.

    • Jake

      What article did you just read?

    • Matt

      Yes, I share Jake's confusion… when you write:

      “We need fewer ignorant readers spouting off about topics they don't understand. The public is loaded with people who have a false sense for what they know, yet act as though they're so deep and clever.”

      You expose yourself, almost certainly without intent, as the person who claims to “know”… and that person is — I'm sorry to say — a bit of an ass.

  • Tim

    This is really prettily written but the message is just all wrong.

  • KY

    specialization isn't simply parochialism and the search for minutiae; it's about rigorous, critical, self-reflexive, and engaged thinking. certain subjects demand of linguistic competence, deep historic knowledge, and culture-specific understanding that the amateur can never master, who chooses instead to bounce from here to there at his/her whim. at best, amateurs can help pose new questions to old material; at worst, they end up as dillettantes, posers, and presumptuous upstarts.

  • qviri

    “The expert is a mortician, presiding over dead knowledge.”

    That's why people invented graduate education in sciences, mathematics, and theoretical engineering.

  • The Unhappy Robot

    Both sides of this argument are reductive. It's nice to reduce everything to black and white then fling shit over the fence for awhile. But both inside and outside of academia, what we really need, is both. Both the amateur and the expert are searching for something. It is merely the means by which they find their way that differs.

    Apart from some kind of resentment of the self turned outward, I cannot for life of me figure out why expert, amateur or dilettante should be used as pejoratives. If you are someone who is passionate and focussed and knows exactly what it is they want to find out, what question they want to answer, good for you. I envy that. I drift between spheres of knowledge, I look for patterns and connections. Because those patterns and connections are the parts that interest me. Perhaps, one day, I will dive further into these phenomenological binding mechanisms. Perhaps not. This is how I operate. If I tried to become an expert in anything, I would grow to resent it, I know myself too well.

    Why is it so difficult to respect that people approach knowledge in different ways? Why are we still encumbered with childish in-fighting amongst otherwise rational, intelligent people?

    Sincerely Baffled,
    The Unhappy Robot

    • Auckland

      I didn't object to the article because I oppose amateur investigations or interdisciplinary thinking. I'm deeply in favor of making unexpected connections and thinking outside the square.

      I criticized it because it celebrated shoddy analysis and a lazy, dilettantish approach to learning about the world. It's simply not sufficient to be 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”. As Walter Benjamin observed, thinking involves not just the movement of thoughts but their arrest – gaining deep insight into an unfamiliar phenomenon requires us to pause and spend time on it. Discipline is needed.

      • Daniel Coffeen

        Who said discipline is to the sole domain of the expert? Who said anything about lazy? I am confused. What I do mention is the need to teach skills — the skill of thinking, the skill of making connection — and not just the knowledge. I suppose I left it implied that there are keenly skilled amateurs and shitty, lazy ones. To wit, these comments and their lazy readings.

        What I want to suggest is that the call to expertdom — and not, any means, the individual expert who relishes, enjoys, frolics with his knowledge — is in fact lazy. How many academics get by on their access to the archives without so much as thinking? How much does an exam test when all it does is test knowledge?

        The call of amateur demands much more hard work and much stranger work — work that's more elusive, more difficult to teach.

        In my own blog, where the commenters are bit more generous and engaged, one comment suggested the word “thinker” instead of amateur — with thinking being a kind of sensitivity to Being. I like that quite a bit.

        And, on a bit of a tangent, I simply don't believe undergraduate education is about teaching 19 year olds to be future academic experts. I think it's about teaching them to think — to be engaged amateurs, in love with ideas and the world.

      • Auckland

        In case you haven't noticed, I'm the one who's actually been, y'know, citing what you've written, thinking through its theoretical antecedents, and offering an (admittedly critical) interpretation. It's a bit ridiculous to imply that I failed to engage with the actual text. Perhaps I haven't been as generous as others, but that's basically because I thought about what you'd written as opposed to merely accepting it because it sounded nice.

        I'm not going to be classless enough to suggest that there may be reasons why you are no longer teaching undergraduates, but I did consider doing so.

      • Daniel Coffeen

        The speed to ad hominen on the www never ceases to amaze me. So I, too, will refrain from calling anyone a douche bag.

      • Guest

        never 4get the sorts of people who would like to “arrest” thought

        there are other ways to achieve disciplined knowledge and mastery, completely outside of all academic specialization no less

    • pizzar0

      Said Don Quixote as he is about to attack the wind mills. What’s wrong with this particular observation is that its probably made by a person who can walk into an empty room, beat himself up and then get all offended by the whole incident. (Incidentally “dilettante” is a pejorative, by definition! E.g. a confident/willing participant in an endeavor without skill, knowledge or insight. Is there a “positive” interpretation?!…)

  • ElleSid

    why make such a strict dichotomy between 'expert' and 'amateur'? i don't understand how this is useful. most people are experts in one area and amateurs in many areas; whether conscious or not, each individual is a blend of the two “identities”. this syncretism is, in my opinion, a most useful notion to come out of this article. if anything, the academy tries to have us separate our professional lives from our personal lives, and this is a great detriment to its reputation and the creativity and innovation it strives to bring out in its members. as a doctoral student at the university of toronto in the department of history, i can say with great confidence that my colleagues/friends are well aware of the limitations posed by the institution of the university, and are constantly being urged to break down such barriers to original knowledge-creation. each piece of academic work i create is uniquely mine, because of my expert and amateur qualities and the way they are entangled in my arguments, interpretations and methods. one must foster this alliance and bring other ways of knowing into the academic environment.

    • Tennaner

      “…each piece of academic work i create is uniquely mine…”

      which alone provides it with relevance how exactly?

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