What exactly is an expert? I have often wondered about this and am often reminded of a nursing tutor stating that ‘a specialist/expert is someone who knows more and more about less and less’ – the kind of person, I imagined, who peers so closely at one part of a human body that the entire person occupying the body become invisible. I have imagined, too, the people who dissect poems and – horror of horrors! – translate each line for children so that they can supposedly understand the poem, whereas in fact they understand only one level of meaning and miss the beauty of the whole, which includes the sound of the words the poet chose. As a child, I absolutely adored the lines of the poem Cargoes by John Masefield:
Quinquireme of Ninevah...rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine.
I assumed that Quinquireme was a person, not a five-tiered ship, but it didn’t matter – it was the beautiful sound of the words and the images they evoked which enraptured me.
Of course, it is important to have experts in particular scientific fields. If a person breaks a bone, they don’t want an amateur fixing it, any more than they want a tinkerer to mend a broken engine. All the same, when it comes to arts subjects, I have my doubts about so-called experts. By what authority does someone assume that title? Art and music are so subjective that, while a specialist might appreciate the artist’s musical or artistic achievements more than a layperson would, so much depends on taste so one cannot say ‘this is good,’ or ‘this is bad’ – the only criteria by which it can be judged is whether or not the artist achieved what s/he set out to achieve, and whether or not it appeals to someone else.
Still more utterly baffling to me is the idea that someone can assume the title of ‘Romanov expert’ or ‘Queen Victoria expert’. One might know every detail of what happened at what time during those people’s lives, but that is really neither here nor there when it comes to understanding a person. Could you say you are an expert on your mother, your father, your siblings or your spouse? I very much doubt anyone would be so arrogant as to make such a statement, and yet it is somehow alright to make such a claim about people who lived in another era! Oh, I would far rather meet with people and listen to people who have a passion and a love for a subject, that to hear the spouting of a million ‘experts’!
I began thinking about this after reading a review of a wonderful book (not one of my books, I hasten to add!), which I greatly enjoyed, where the reviewer suggested that the author should have handed her research to a ‘Romanov expert’. What a bizarre thing to say! It reminded me again of those who dissect poems and miss their meaning, or stare so closely at one organ of the body that they forget that a person is attached to it! I do not honestly believe that there is such a thing as a ‘Romanov expert’ – academics in particular frequently ‘miss the wood for trees’ (I have seen so many of them spouting from their high horses about how weak Nicholas II was, or how terrible a parent Queen Victoria was, leaving me wondering what is happening in their own lives if they view the world with such judgemental hostility) and, from my own experience of academia, I am well aware that more often than not, it is necessary to write and say only what is expected, rather than to interpret and be original, if one is to attain the somewhat meaningless qualifications that are subsequently awarded to enable one to join the clique of ‘experts’ in the fields of art, literature and history.
Amusingly, I think most of us hardly understand a great deal of our own behaviour and reactions, how then can anyone possibly claim to be an expert on someone else? To attempt to do so, for some reason, reminds me of the lines from St. Paul’s letter: “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing”
Among the so-called experts, there seem to be quite a lot of resounding gongs and clanging cymbals!
I think it is very important to make the distinction between someone who claims to be an expert (which I don't) and someone who claims to be a specialist (which I sometimes do). In my mind, "specialist" is a term for someone who has "specialised" in a particular area - probably spending a great deal of time on this, acquiring substantial knowledge and skill, and probably developing opinions. The term "specialist" expressed about oneself does not carry the arrogant overtones that "expert" may do. Of course, describing someone else as expert in a field is quite different, and I am quite sure you are expert in those historical fields you write about.
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