The Decline of the Amateur Expert

Leonardo da Vinci is regarded as one of the greatest minds in human history. He was the epitome of the Renaissance Man. While only formally trained as a painter, his expertise encompassed subjects as diverse as mathematics, architecture, music, science, and engineering. Throughout his life he was employed not only as an artist, but as a maker of musical instruments, author, civil and military engineer, architect, cartographer, artificer, and ambassador.

Had he lived today, he would likely have been a great painter, with his only outlet to indulge his other pursuits being a serious blogging habit.

As a trained artist, he would have flourished in the art world today. But could you actually imagine anyone hiring someone these days without a relevant degree, training, or certification to build a bridge, plan the defenses of a city, or represent a government in a diplomatic delegation?

To be fair, this was partly due to the fact that the university system was not as diverse as it is today in subjects taught. But this being the case, people relied on genuine proof of competency rather than credentials to decide who was capable of doing what.

I have the privilege to know a number of individuals who, without degrees or formal training, are nonetheless brilliant thinkers (and doers) in various fields. They took it upon themselves to study, practice and experiment their way to expertise. Lacking the formal qualifications now required by our societies to do anything major in a given area, they are forced to settle for the table scraps from the Ivory Tower; operating on the fringes teaching, writing, and working in the few circles that willingly overlook credentials in favour of their reputations and experience.

As a curator, I have encountered individuals whose knowledge of aspects of my collection rivals or surpasses my own. I treat them as teachers of equal value to my colleagues and professors. But I have a master’s degree, and they do not. Hence, I can be hired for my position, and they cannot.

Why should they not share their skills and knowledge the way that the ‘recognized’ experts do?

This is an issue that I feel will become increasingly more relevant in the near future. As money becomes tighter for everyone, fewer people will be able or willing to spend a small fortune to go to one of a handful of universities in order to gain a piece of paper and a few initials stating that they are capable of doing something. This is a luxury. Furthermore, having a degree in something does not necessarily mean that the person is actually good at it, just that you managed to pass your degree.

As the pursuit of degrees and other formal qualifications becomes less practical for many, we’re going to have to start focusing more on finding people who are capable of doing the job well, and less on finding those who have the credentials claiming that they are capable. Competency must become more important than qualification.



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2 Responses to The Decline of the Amateur Expert

  1. Alena

    I so completely agree! I shared this on Facebook, then Stephen shared it, Then a friend of ours who you have never met shared it too. My share has 5 likes on it (only 1 from someone who has net you), Stephen’s has three likes and two thoughtful comments. You have sparked some discussions, my friend.

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