Dr. Tom Nichols is a professor at the Harvard Extension School and the U.S. Naval War College. Nichols is a prominent member of the NeverTrump movement. His views are his own, not those of his employer. His most recent book is The Death of Expertise, and he spoke on Feb. 19.
For those who haven’t read the book, or the Federalist article, could you briefly summarize what you’re talking about in The Death of Expertise?
Why is it that people now think they’re smarter than experts? Not why are they skeptical of experts — that’s normal. But rather, how did people reach such a level of arrogance that they think that they are smarter than people who do things for a living?
I think this is one place the book has always been misunderstood. Somehow people think I mean that you have to be slavishly deferential to experts in all situations. Look, my house burned pretty badly in a house fire. And there were all these painters, and contractors and electricians, and they’re all talking to each other and I had no idea, I was clueless. I finally just said, “You guys do whatever you need to do.” Even people in the trades have people following them around saying, “What are you doing there? What kind of wire is that?” Well, would you know? Plumbers and electricians are experts. We don’t all have to be good at the same thing.
You wrote that “The idea of telling students that professors run the show and know better than they do strikes many students as something like uppity lip from the help.” What experiences caused you to make this claim?
Very few of them with me, because I don’t allow it. But I have had colleagues telling me a lot of stories. One story I told in the book was a graduate student who said that he was a natural A student and that if he didn’t get an A, it reflected on the poor quality of my instruction. Like, the default grade is an A, and you have to get me to that. And if you can’t, you’re a lousy teacher. That to me is a complete inversion of the role of student and teacher. It’s not your job to determine whether you’re a natural A student — that’s my determination. I’ve had students argue a grade with me, well you gave me this grade, and I think I deserved that grade. I’m willing to hear a student out, I’m human, teachers make mistakes. I’m willing to re-read an exam or re-read a paper but by and large, students seem to forget that only one of us is empowered to make the decision about what a grade should be.
How do you think conservative students who are trying to think critically about these issues, while considering the Trump administration’s turmoil, can move forward?
The trap conservatives are falling into, is that they are getting bought off here and there by policies they happen to like. I would argue that thoughtful conservatives are conservatives precisely because they care about classical notions of civic virtue. This is why we are different, and I don’t say this in a deprecating way. This is what makes us different from progressives. Progressives are interested in policy outcomes in the near term that will help them build a better society. Right, they’re interested in change. That’s inherent in the nature of the word progressive. They’re moving away from something in the past, and by instituting policies they can create a new kind of society. Conservatives, by their nature, conserve. We’re trying to limit. We’re not about the expansion of government power — we’re about the limitation of government power. And this is just an honest difference we have with progressives. I would argue that Trump has no interest in that difference. Trump is interested primarily in Trump. He just doesn’t care. I think what young conservatives should think about is what kind of foundation of civic virtue is this government mortgaging for particular policies that may or may not even still be in effect 20 years down the line. Without civic virtues, policies are ephemeral and Trump is depleting the small reservoir of civic virtue that we had left.
How could the problems you raised in The Death of Expertise be resolved?
I think it’s up to you. I think that the people who have now gone out on the ledges are not coming back.
And maybe it’s because of my generation. I’m not really a boomer, not really an X-er. You know, we had seen Watergate, we had seen the fall in Vietnam. And maybe we were too cynical, maybe we were just a little too cynical. Maybe your generation can strike a better balance. The boomers were in love with themselves, the X-ers were withdrawn, and weren’t involved. You know how critical I am of the millennials for being self-absorbed and whiny. But you know, for all my criticisms of the millennials, right now you’re the generation I’m placing my hope in. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I’m so hard on you.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.