Person. Woman. Man. Camera. TV.

Person. Woman. Man. Camera. TV. July 28, 2020

By now, most everyone is aware of how proud Donald Trump is of passing a cognitive awareness test. If you are not aware, you are perhaps one of those astonishingly wise people who, on principle, has chosen not to watch television or pay attention to media during the pandemic. In case you missed it, here—in the president’s own words—is what he had to say about the test and why he is so proud of himself.

Person. Woman. Man. Camera. TV. I’m sure that the promotion people are printing t-shirts with those words, apparel that will rival MAGA hats as the president’s fans seek to usher him into another four years of office.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the president did recently take the test he’s so proud of; let’s also assume that he did well on it. That means that not only can he remember five words in proper order, but he also can tell the difference between an elephant and a rhinoceros, as well as being able to count backwards by 7 from 100 (I wonder what he did after he got to 2—negative numbers move one into a different cognitive space).

A Facebook friend wrote that “I used to administer this test when I worked in long-term care/skilled nursing homes,” while another wrote that “We used it on the geriatric unit as a quick screen for dementia.” What does this tell us? I guess that we should feel comforted to know that, at least on the day he took the test, Donald Trump was not as far down the road of dementia as many of us have suspected. I propose that instead of debates between Biden and Trump between now and November, we hold a cognitive test contest.

What qualifies a person to be the “most powerful person in the world”? Donald Trump’s all-too-public-and-obvious inadequacies aside, even the most brilliant person in the world cannot possibly have even a small fraction of the detailed knowledge necessary to make the daily informed decisions that the presidency of the United States requires. This is why we fully expect every president to be surrounded with experts, with “the best people,” as Trump promised he would do (and didn’t). Just as importantly, we expect the President to listen to these experts.

Sadly, it has become more and more typically “American” over the past several years—facilitated by social media—to downplay the importance of expertise and to pretend that a few moments of Googling and rummaging around on the Internet qualifies each of us as “experts” on any given topic. The Donald Trump presidency has taken full advantage of what Isaac Asimov described several years ago:

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

As an academic and a college professor who spent ten years in college higher education to earn my Ph.D., I find myself at the crossroads of expertise and common knowledge on a daily basis. A prime example of this dynamic was on display last December in a House Judiciary Committee hearing that was an early part of the impeachment hearings. The witnesses at the hearing were four academic, legal experts on all matters concerning impeachment. One of the witnesses was Stanford law professor Pamela Karlan. There was something about Professor Karlan that some found so off-putting that they just had to bloviate about it. Here’s a representative reaction to Professor Karlan from “Fox and Friends” the morning after the hearing:

The disdain is evident, and, you know, it sort of recalls back to the 2016 election when voters didn’t feel heard, when they resonated with President Trump, because there is this elitist, disdainful reproachment coming from the far left, and especially in academia, that makes people feel disconnected and undercut. Everything about her exuded that she was better, and smarter, than anyone watching. And that’s so off-putting.

Now that just pisses me off. And not because of her ubiquitous use of “you know,” the awkwardness of “recalls back,” or because she’s using a word (“reproachment”) that actually isn’t a real word.

It pisses me off, first, because at least in the smattering of social media outrage I subjected myself to, Professor Karlan was the only one of the panel of four legal experts called to testify who generated this reaction. I wonder if it has anything to do with the fact that the other three witnesses at the hearing were men. No, that couldn’t possibly be true. In a world where candidates like Hillary Clinton, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Amy Klobuchar are judged for being too assertive or “shrill,” when a similar tone in a male candidate would be either ignored or praised (has any male candidate for any office ever been described as “shrill”?), it couldn’t possibly be the case that there is general discomfort with a woman who is pointed, direct, and knowledgeable—could it? Nah.

It also pisses me off because the quote from “Fox and Friends” above exhibits a whole bunch of lame stereotypes about academics, stereotypes that anyone whose life is spent in academia (as mine has been for more than three decades) quickly becomes so sick of that they want to vomit. After seeing the clip quoted above on Twitter, I responded with this:

I’ve been a college professor for 30 years. I’m used to being in a room where everyone believes they are the smartest person there. And they very well may be. Half the people at monthly department meetings in my department of 20 faculty have confidence that could seem like disdain (but isn’t). Deal with it.

As I read that now, six months later, I’m realize that it is far more measured than I was feeling at the time. Over the past two decades I have been both a department chair and the director of a large academic program that, at any given time, involved 75 faculty and 1800+ students. People often used to suggest that trying to direct faculty must be like “herding cats.” I always responded that it’s worse. It’s like herding cats when each of the cats in the room has a Ph.D. and is sure that she or he is the smartest cat in the room.

My guess is that Dr. Karlan was in academic “professor and expert” mode in front of the Congressional committee last December; that is, after all, why she was asked, along with her three expert colleagues to be there. I don’t know for sure, because I was on campus in the classroom, then in meetings, during the hearing. But I don’t need to see it to know exactly what happened to generate animosity such as that expressed on “Fox and Friends.” A highly educated and trained scholar with relevant expertise—in this case, expertise in legal and interpretive matters concerning impeachment—was asked to respond to questions relying on her training and expertise. She did, directly and pointedly. And then she is criticized for acting and sounding like the very expert and highly trained person that caused her to be summoned to the hearing in the first place.

Any academic or college professor could provide you with multiple examples of the same dynamic. “Please provide us with your expertise and knowledge, but please don’t do it in such a way that makes us feel that you have more knowledge or expertise than we do. Otherwise we might decide that you are an elitist and that you think that you are better than we are.” News flash, people. Dr. Karlan does know more about the topic under consideration at the hearing than you do. That’s what being an “expert” on something means. The fact that she communicates her knowledge and expertise in a manner that you find “elitist” is your problem, not hers. Your ignorance is not just as good as her knowledge. If you are threatened or annoyed when you find out that some people know more than you on any number of subjects, that’s on you, not them. There is a difference between elitism and knowing what the fuck you are talking about.

To quote a phrase from 24/7 new channel talking heads that is vastly overused, “let me be perfectly clear.” If you got the impression, “Fox and Friends” person, from Professor Kaplan’s testimony that she thinks she is “smarter” than you, that’s because concerning the matters on which she was speaking, she is smarter than you. And me. And probably all but a couple hundred or so human beings on the planet. That’s why she’s an “expert.” She’s earned the right to deliver her insights with an authority and air that might cause you to surmise that she thinks she’s better than you. That’s because in this case she is better than you. Her opinion matters more than yours. That’s why the Judiciary committee wanted to speak to her and not to you. In this case, your opinion doesn’t matter. But her knowledge does.

Back to the President’s test. Person. Woman. Man. Camera. TV. Perhaps we should fashion a version of the same test for those who aspire to the Presidency, with five different words. Fairness. Responsibility. Honesty. Integrity. Compassion. I seriously doubt that the current occupant of the Oval Office would remember any of those, let alone in the prescribed order. It’s much more difficult to remember words that you don’t know the meaning of.

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