Professional expertise: canonical texts vs breadth and depth of experience

Academic disciplines are defined to a large extent by their canonical texts. The professions are likewise defined by their regulatory texts. The strength of such texts is that they provide both a to-be-shared world-view and an interpretive vocabulary. It is the way they are used, however, that determines their public good.  One weakness of all canonical texts is their tendency to induce blind faith, thereby making it more difficult for its practitioners to deal with novel problems, emergent issues and innovatory practices. To exaggerate the point: consider the three world-view ‘book’ belief systems embodied in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Adherents who restrict themselves to reading exclusively their own foundational text find it difficult, if not impossibe, to accept the text itself as a product of its time, speaking to metaphorical as well as literal truths. It is but a short step for evangelists with different world views to engage in fundamentalist fight-to-the-death conflicts over the superiority of one text-based practice over others.

If dependence on canonical texts leads to blinkered action is there an alternative basis for enlightened action? The Enlightenment provided the answer: empirical investigation. It follows that the greater the breadth and depth of an individual’s empirical investigations, the greater their claim to valid expertise. The question then becomes: how to induce others to acquire similar expertise if one cannot rely on canonical texts? The simplistic answer is to establish an apprenticeship model, wherein curious novices start by working alongside contemporary experts before themselves encouraging the next generation of novices to stand on their own shoulders

About petermathews

Member of the Royal Society of Medicine
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