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Try the long road!

By Carolyn F. Ruffin / January 7, 1980

We need experts. Of course we do. I certainly don't want a know-nothing repairing the family heirloom watch. But I'll have to admit that I learned amazing secrets by repairing the lock on my front door. Who cares if it did take me three complete reassemblies, after I had adjusted the offending spring? The unlocked mysteries were worth it.

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Perhaps I am being defensive about today's overemphasis on expertise. (I work with an expert in human relations theory who can spot the first sign of defensiveness. Right away, he could have told George III that the Founding Fathers would get defensive over the Stamp Acts.) But if I am defensive, let me at least identify the defendant clearly.

I am not calling for the abandonment of knowledge in favor of ignorance. Despite its promised bliss, ignorance, like marriage, requires more work than its casual promoters hint. In the case of ignorance, people are so ready to inform and educate you on their theories that you require considerable expertise not to know.

What I defend is my right to come to know what I need to know gracefully. Training, credentials, workshops, and institutes can take the grace out of learning. There has got to be room left for learning by the natural grace of messing around. One could even argue that all those institutes, workshops, and programs are staffed with people who have memorized what other people learned by messing around. Before it became "method" the scientific method was just curious people messing around. It used to be hard to tell the chemists from the alchemists.

Now the phrase "messing around" may frighten some. It calls forth images of schools abandoned, wild-eyed, woolly-minded creatures reinventing the wheel. That's not my meaning. I will modify the term to include messing around gracefully.m There is enormous grace, even art, in the discoveries of those innocent of formal knowledge.

What meteorologist would have declared with a friend of mine that the rain had been so light that "there is no water in the puddles?" What linguist could have selected a precise term for the humor that develops among traveling companions after 18 hours without a break in a crowded auto? Yet an eight-year-old I know quickly dubbed the phenomenon -- "Carcasm."

Such precise use of language is clearly not the province of experts. The first task of the expert in a new field of knowledge is to develop an inscrutable language with which to discuss the subject. (Otherwise how can the expert remain an expert?) Consider the classic example -- experts in the field of communications. They have introduced such language barriers as "interpersonal interaction,c "strategies of intervention in group processes," and "group cohesiveness," to replace "talk," "butting in," and "sticking together."

In contrast the graceful messer around begins by asking, "I wonder how that works? What is it? What's it for? Is it like something else I know?" Then he or she is likely to take the particular "that" apart on the spot to answer the questions. But that is as it should be. Learning is meant to be puzzling, or unpuzzling, if the word can be made to mean taking apart and putting together any puzzle.