On “Expert” Taste

In a new article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Michael Clune takes aim at the humanities’ unwillingness to pass judgment on potential objects of study, and the consequent inability of humanities scholars to assert or defend the value of anything. There’s a lot of food for thought in his cri-de-coeur, which for me hits the sweet spot between literary criticism, aesthetic evaluation, and pedagogy. But on the pedagogical side of things, strangely enough for an article that thoroughly digs into the losses we incur when we make assumptions about how to treat “value” in the classroom, there’s not much questioning of assumptions about pedagogical dynamics.

One problem is that Clune just jumps onboard with I.A. Richards:

In the early 20th century, the critic I.A. Richards already perceived the tension between equality and judgment. “The expert in matters of taste is in an awkward position when he differs from the majority,” he wrote. “He is forced to say in effect, ‘I am better than you. My taste is more refined, my nature more cultured, you will do well to become more like me than you are.’”  By the waning years of the 20th century, professors concluded they needed to reframe their expertise in order to align it with egalitarianism. Therefore, they bend over backward to disguise their syllabi as value-neutral, as simply a means for students to gain cultural or political or historical knowledge.

But is this actually true? Where does the superiority complex come from? I think part of it is that we still regard teachers as authority figures, who speak authoritatively, who therefore hold “superior” views, but it doesn’t have to be this way. It’s entirely possible to run a dialogic, democratic classroom in which the teacher has more sound reasons for his/her value judgments, or may be able to articulate them more persuasively, simply because he/she has spent more time than most people doing these things, day in and day out; ie. he/she has had more practice.

But such a teacher is still exposed to rebuttal, dissent — and should be, and should invite it, to give students the practice they need in order to form and defend their own judgments. In other words, Richards’ “expert” may rather say, in effect, “I’ve had more time that you to hone my ability to justify my judgments, and more time to survey the field so that I have a wider range of points of comparison than you do, but this is an effect of time (age) and practice (labour) and it has nothing to do with the privileges of institutional authority, or some absolute grounds for the formation of value judgments.”