Growth Inhibitors: Loss of Expertise and Knowledge

We need to consider a few more questions before we turn to the question of finding hope in the midst of the descending darkness. If I am correct in suggesting that we are facing a new dark age, a darkness enveloping our society as well as our Church, then perhaps we need to consider the effects that darkness is having or, to put it differently, what the cost to the Church will be if we do nothing to reverse it. Exposing what is happening to us is probably the best first step toward repairing the damage already done and preventing any further harm.

As mentioned earlier there are distinct “parallels between the [European Medieval] Dark Ages and our own time.”[1] One of the more obvious consequences of such dark times is that the basic knowledge and skills needed for living are being lost. During the Medieval Dark Ages the ability to read and write were gradually lost. As a result, with the exception of a few isolated pockets of intellectual activity, primarily at monasteries, general knowledge of history, art, mathematics, and science faded from the collective consciousness. Of course, many were or became quite indifferent to this loss, thinking they were coping well without those skills.  Eventually most were not even aware of what they no longer knew. It might be described as mass amnesia, a kind of intentional forgetting. The same thing has been said of contemporary North American society. Morris Berman, for example, has no difficulty documenting “rapidly dropping levels of literacy, critical understanding, and general intellectual awareness”[2] and describes the “unambiguously bleak” situation created by what he calls the “collapse of American intelligence.”[3] Consider a few of his examples:

  • Forty-two percent of American adults cannot locate Japan on a world map according to Garrison Keillor (National Public Radio, 22 March 1997)[4]
  • A 1995 article in the New York Times reported the results of a survey that revealed that 40 percent of American adults (this could be upward of 70 million people) did not know that Germany was our enemy in World War II. A Roper survey conducted in 1996 revealed that 84 percent of American college seniors couldn’t say who was president at the start of the Korean War (Harry Truman). Fifty-eight percent of American high school seniors cannot understand a newspaper editorial in any newspaper, and a U.S. Department of Education survey of 22,000 students in 1995 revealed that 50 percent were unaware of the Cold War, and that 60 percent had no idea of how the United States came into existence.[5]
  • A 1998 survey by the National Constitution Center revealed that only 41 percent of American teenagers can name the three branches of government, but 59 percent can name the Three Stooges. Only 2 percent can name the chief justice of the Supreme Court; 26 percent were unable to identify the vice president. In the early 1990s, the National Assessment of Education Progress reported that 50 percent of seventeen year olds could not express 9/100 as a percentage, and nearly 50 percent couldn’t place the Civil War in the correct half century…[6]
  • Ignorance of the most elementary scientific facts on the part of American adults is nothing less than breathtaking. In a survey conducted for the National Science Foundation in October 1995, 56 percent of those polled said that electrons were larger than atoms; 63 percent stated that the earliest human beings lived at the same time as the dinosaurs (a chronological error of more than 60 million years); 53 percent said that the earth revolves around the sun in either a day or a month (that is, only 47 percent understood that the correct answer is one year); and 91 percent were unable to state what a molecule was. A random telephone survey of more than two thousand adults, conducted by Northern Illinois University, revealed that 21 percent believed that the sun revolved around the earth, with an additional 7 percent saying that they did not know which revolved around which. (loc.577)

As easy as it is for us to dismiss these statistics as fabricated, they do indeed reflect a reality in our country that, according to many observers, has only gotten worse during the last twenty years. Obviously, if this is true of society in general it is also going to be true of the Church, which I can confirm on the basis of years of service as a parish priest. Consider a few ecclesial examples of this collective “forgetting:”

  • During the first week of Great Lent we always did evening services which included the reading of the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete. The Canon presupposes a rather high degree of biblical literacy on the part of the listeners. Near the end (Ode 9) St. Andrew states that he has (with the Canon) reviewed Moses’ account of the creation of the world, and then all of the Old Testament Scripture that tells the story of both the righteous and the wicked and that he will also give them examples from the New Testament and thus encourage the listener to repentant, the example of the righteous, avoid following the ways of the sinners, and strive to regain the grace of Christ through prayer and fasting, purity and reverence. This clearly noble intent depends entirely on the listener having enough biblical knowledge to understand the individuals and events that he describes throughout the odes. I guess everyone knows about Adam and Eve (Ode 1). Maybe even Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But what about Jacob’s wives Leah and Rachel? (Ode 4) Then there is Rueben, Ephraim, Saul, David, Elijah, Elisha, and others. In every case St. Andrew assumes that the listeners have sufficient familiarity with the stories of these individuals which he (St. Andrew) can use as a basis for teaching. But what can it mean for you to imitate Rueben if you do not know who he was? To my amazement I early discovered that my parishioners did not know, had no idea, and were thus completely unable to reap the spiritual benefits of the exercise. They faithfully came, they listened, but the lack of biblical knowledge prevented understanding and growth. As might be expected this ignorance manifested itself in many other aspects of parish life.
  • During the week of preparation before Great Lent (e.g. Matins for the Sunday of the Prodigal Son) our choirs often sing a hymn entitled By the Rivers of Babylon. The text is taken from Psalm 136 and expresses the powerful emotions of the Hebrew captives taken by the Persian King Cyrus and longing to return Jerusalem. Thinking about their sorrow and longing for God’s blessing is supposed to serve a reminder to help us develop the same longing. But, again that can only take place if the historical context of the story is known. Moreover, this particular account has the disturbing line about children being dashed upon rocks. To my amazement our choir members not only did not know the basic outline of this event but, although troubled by the, to them incomprehensibly harsh words, they had never sought an explanation. Year after year they just kept singing the hymn.

So we lament the gradual disappearance of biblical literacy and have to ask why this is happening, how does the Darkness cause this? As is the case with society in general, the driving forces behind this amnesia can be found in a failure of our institutions and in the attitudes and practices of individual believers. On the institutional level the Church has a number of mechanisms for teaching—Church schools, bible studies, sermons, etc. However, I fear that in many cases, these opportunities to teach are either neglected altogether or used ineffectively.  Anecdotal evidence (as corroborated by many priests) indicates that many Church schools concentrate on the externals of Church life—vestments, mechanics of our services, making the sign of the cross, rather than the biblical and traditional content of our faith. Many homilies are simply history lessons or lectures on contemporary topics rather than expositions and applications of the day’s scripture reading. If and when classes are conducted, they are often focused on some secular, pop-psychological best seller rather than the Bible. If this is the case, then it is understandable that basic knowledge of the bible and the faith are gradually fading. The people are simply not being taught.

However, that is not always the reason for the loss of knowledge. To their credit the clergy of our local parish are very active in giving bible study classes (Revelation, Minor Prophets, New Testament Epistles). Their homilies are often clear and forceful applications of the Scripture readings of the day. We are even offering brief online courses on the spiritual life at katharoskardia.org. Yet, the level of knowledge remains generally low in the Church. This is no doubt a result of our parishioners being caught up in the same behaviors plaguing our whole culture: abandoning real knowledge and expertise in favor of the easy information available on the Internet and the practice of filtering and the refusal to learn from others that characterizes what has been called filtering.

Not long ago I was giving a lecture at a major university. During the session some of the students were logged into the school’s WIFI network and were checking the details of my presentation. Even though that net search “proved” me correct, it was a rather unsettling experience. This now common place practice (yes, even in the Church) of “fact checking”[7] points to several paradoxical consequences of the Internet, namely “instant experts”[8] and the “death of expertise.”[9]

The reason cyberspace facilitates instant expertise is that “the Internet is a magnificent repository of knowledge…”[10] to which users have almost unlimited access. However, since no mechanism by which information posted to or claims made on the Internet may be vetted beforehand, the World Wide Web produces what some have either lauded or deplored as the phenomenon of “instant experts.”[11]

However, the traditional idea of an expert as one with comprehensive and authoritative knowledge of some discipline hardly applies to these new cyber-experts. Obviously, instantly “googling” an answer to a question does provide some information, but hardly the comprehensive knowledge that usually takes a lifetime to acquire. But, now you can do a bit of on-line “research” and consider yourself a “biblical scholar” without knowing much of the Bible, a “theologian” without actually knowing or understanding the dogmatic assertions of the Church. But this superficial “knowing things” (bits and pieces) is deceptive because it is actually making many of us intellectually lazy. Today we no longer need to or want to invest time and resources in learning another language. We simply allow some online translator offer us fragments of the other language. We don’t bother learning geography, history, or logic. But it is more than mere laziness, we now face outright resistance to learning anything.

Clearly, the basic Enlightenment insistence on freedom has become a demand for unlimited choices in every area of life, as if the reality of our own freedom to choose depended on the proliferation of options. This rage for choice has, in turn, led to an extreme personalization. It is not just a matter of having unlimited choices, but a kind of macro-choice, choosing which choices I am exposed to. According to Sunstein “emerging technologies” are providing consumers with striking power to “‘filter what they see.’”[12] You can now avoid what you dislike and concentrate on what you do like.[13]  This is a kind of filtering[14] along the lines of “I get to choose what I choose” is the ultimate expression of consumer sovereignty. The consumers apply multiple filters based on personality, geography, political orientation, etc. and define in advance what they choose to be exposed to.

Taken together with filter and preference bubbles, the internet is actually making “many of us dumber, it’s making us meaner: alone behind their keyboards, people argue rather than discuss, and insult rather than listen.”[15] Yet, proud of their own “knowing things googled” or relying on the strongest voices in their digital tribes, these very limited “experts” are actually rejecting established knowledge as well as the comprehensive expertise normally associated with that knowledge. We have gotten to the point where many now reject the advice of experts in order to assert their own freedom or autonomy. It is “a way for Americans to insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong about anything.”[16] We are now witnessing the death of the ideal of expertise itself, a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laypeople, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers.

So, are these patterns of behavior and thought affecting us in the Church? Does this help explain the forgetting, the loss of biblical and traditional knowledge in the Church? If so, what does it mean for the teaching authority of the clergy and others in the Church? What does it mean for learning and implementing the teachings of Christ, which often run counter to the prevailing norms and opinions? Now it becomes easy to participate in only those external aspects of the faith that bring us some kind of cultural, ritual, or ceremonial pleasure and filter out the “uncomfortable” aspects, and the voices of true ecclesial experts. We can now “personalize” the Christian knowledge and practice, but we must ask, what is left of the “true faith” we sing about having found?

 

[1] Arthur W. III Hunt, “The New Dark Ages: How Electronic Media Are Pulling Us Back to Barbarism,” Christian Research Journal 24, no. 01 (2001): 8.

[2] Morris Berman, The twilight of American culture / Morris Berman, 1st ed. (New York: Norton,, 2000), Loc 388, Kindle.

[3] Berman, The twilight of American culture / Morris Berman, Loc 577.

[4] Berman, The twilight of American culture / Morris Berman, Loc 577.

[5] Berman, The twilight of American culture / Morris Berman, Loc 577.

[6] Berman, The twilight of American culture / Morris Berman, Loc 577.

[7] Determining what is true is not a new problem, but the rise of CMC mediated competing claims has made it increasingly important. Cf. Lucas Graves, Deciding What’s True: The Rise of Political Fact-Checking in American Journalism (New York: Columbia University, 2016).

[8] Lorne L Dawson and Douglas E Cowan, Religion online : finding faith on the Internet (New York: Routledge, 2004), chap 1, Kindle.

[9] Thomas M. Nichols, The death of expertise : the campaign against established knowledge and why it matters (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017).

[10] Nichols, The death of expertise : the campaign against established knowledge and why it matters, 9.

[11] Dawson and Cowan, Religion online : finding faith on the Internet, chap 12.

[12] Cass R. Sunstein, Republic.com 2.0 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 5. Table of contents only http://www.loc.gov/catdir/toc/ecip0712/2007008392.html

Publisher description http://www.loc.gov/catdir/enhancements/fy0726/2007008392-d.html

Contributor biographical information http://www.loc.gov/catdir/enhancements/fy0734/2007008392-b.html.

[13] Sunstein, Republic.com 2.0, 1.

[14] For more on this idea of filtering see Nicholas Negroponte, Being digital, 1st ed. (New York: Knopf, 1995). Publisher description http://www.loc.gov/catdir/enhancements/fy0601/94045971-d.html.

[15] Nichols, The death of expertise : the campaign against established knowledge and why it matters, 9.

[16] Nichols, The death of expertise : the campaign against established knowledge and why it matters, 1.

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