Perhaps Those Who Ought to Know Better Oughtn’t

The relevance of education came up in an interesting conversation that National Review’s Jay Nordlinger had with a Tunisian immigrant in Texas:

The driver was recently back in Tunisia. And a curious incident occurred, in the town. A horse reared up and injured somebody (not badly). The owner subdued the horse as quickly as he could. Later, a mob came and beat the owner up, as punishment. “My sister said, ‘Good, he deserved it.’ And she is a doctor, a psychologist. If she thinks this way — that a mob can just do what it wants — what about common people?” …
… I know what he means when he talks about his sister and the common people. Shortly after 9/11 — maybe on 9/11, I can’t remember — a doctor acquaintance in Alexandria e-mailed me. She said, “I know you live in New York, and I hope you’re okay. And please know that Muslims could not have done this.” She murmured about the Jews. I thought, “If she can think this — a doctor who lectures at the University of Alexandria — what hope does her janitor have? What about the man selling lemons on the street?”

I once might have assented to this generality, but having worked in such “common people” occupations as unloading fishing boats and construction for most of my adult life, I’m increasingly inclined to question it. While they may be less familiar with the specifics of current events, I’ve found that, when informed, salt-of-the-earth folks are more likely to translate them in terms of everyday experience. In other words, they don’t often think about politics and culture, as such, but when they do, they rely on common sense.
The highly educated, on the other hand, habituated to the white-collar-professional world have learned as fundamental truths:

  1. That there is untold information in society of which they can only know a fraction.
  2. That specialists (which includes many such professionals) often know things that just don’t make sense to non-specialists.

Both findings are accurate, productive, and necessary to a fully aware and intricate social structure, but they lose their relevance when it comes to matters of principle and politics. There are no specialists in determining how justice ought to be defined, and seeking specialists to follow in such areas merely stains non-rational preferences with the tint of objectivity. More likely, though, the assumption will be that there must be specialized knowledge behind the received wisdom of the seeker’s clique, and that assumption recasts preferences and biases not simply as the way things are, but as the way it’s been determined that they ought to be.
Such tendencies are broadly human. What I’m proposing, here, is that the habits of thinking and acquiring social status might actually make the individual more susceptible to the error.

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