Where experts fear to tread

I collect quotes wherever I encounter insightful or amusing phrases. When I find a passage that is both insightful and amusing, I am doubly pleased. Therefore, I felt lucky when this gem came in an email: “Not being an expert on anything, I rush in where experts fear to tread.” My immediate response was a gut recognition. I, jack-of-all-trades, or, as some of my more charitable friends say, “Renaissance woman,” could relate. My delight with his concept caused me to ask the author, Robert Desmarais Sullivan, for permission to quote him, and he graciously agreed.

While my initial reaction to those words included a giggle, there is more to Sullivan’s quote than meets the eye. Something deeper, perhaps even dangerous, is wrapped beneath its flippancy. That blithe remark flies in the face of expertise, and even questions the value of it. In our society, credentials validate one’s experience or opinion, and experts have these; the titles and degrees to prove their claim of expertise.

The dangerous little quote also begs the question, “where do experts fear to tread?” I believe it is in the places where they feel they are not experts. You are either an expert, or you do not “go there”; your opinion and experience do not count or matter. If experts hold the trademark on a particular topic or issue, then who are the rest of us to tamper with that propriety? If we dare to question, to rush in, we are often discounted. Pointing out that “she is no expert,” is a facile way to discount everything about a person, to minimize her as a person, in one swift cut.

At a recent social gathering, I had a conversation with an intellectual property attorney named Bob. He said that in his experience, most people who own a trademark, URL, or other intellectual property believe their right to ownership is much greater than the reality. My reflexive response to Bob’s observation was, “That makes them feel better, feel more powerful.” It seems that tendency to over-extended ownership pertains to wider intellectual “property,” as well.

Many experts seem to believe they have a lock on expertise beyond what they actually have. As a homeschooler, I have seen this attitude expressed by doctors, teachers, counselors, school administrators, and others who presume that their expertise extends to homeschooling, to the point that they may even be certain that they are experts on my children’s needs and lives.

Unfortunately, these are often people who know little about homeschooling, and may be set against it for some misconception they hold.

My second favorite thing to do—after homeschooling my kids—is to help other homeschoolers empower themselves, even though I lack an expert’s credentials. I am not a lawyer, but I can read the law, and so can anyone who has reasonable intelligence and interest. In eleven years as a registered homeschool parent, I have learned a great deal about my state’s Home Instruction statute, asserted myself and rallied others when my county asked for more than the legal requirement, and helped numerous parents find their courage to do the same.

When I began homeschooling in 1995, I was afraid that “they” would “come after” me, because I filed under an option that was not used by anyone I knew at the time. I was sure—for some nebulous reason—that I would be targeted and persecuted. Of course, as for the vast majority of us, that never came to pass.

Still, four years into official homeschooling, the county asked me to provide copies of the tables of contents from the books we would be using. Because the request was beyond what the law requires, I declined with a simple, civil letter that stated, “I have read the Home Instruction statute, and believe that I have met the legal requirements with the materials I have already provided.However, if you will state the wording of the law, which requires that I provide the tables of contents, I will be happy to comply.” A few days later, I received the so-called “approval” letter, and the county has not asked me for anything beyond law since. I encouraged my fellow homeschoolers to question the “experts” when the experts cross the line, and this attitude has spread. It is now common for seasoned homeschoolers in Virginia to advise frightened newbies to write the “show me” letter.

As I was wrapping up the original version of this article, I came across another pertinent quote, from Steve Kurtz of Critical Art Ensemble, who said, “Amateurs can fully exercise their rights to free speech. They can function as watchdogs to a certain degree. They can keep an eye on what is in the public’s interest. Experts are incredibly beholden to whoever’s doing the investing.”

Kurtz’s words struck a strong chord, and brought to mind the situation in June of 2005, when a national organization concerned with homeschooling knew that the Prince William County school division in Virginia had an extra-legal regulation on the books, but did nothing, because they didn’t know- or, it seems, care that local families were being harassed. When confronted with their lack of action, the organization’s representative indicated that the group had been hesitant to correct problem due to their fear of what might happen if they “opened up” the homeschool regulation. But I, “not being an expert on anything,” rushed in “where experts fear to tread,” spearheading a grassroots coalition that worked with the school board to resolve the erroneous regulation.

Unfortunately, this accomplishment also involved standing up to the national organization, which took issue with the idea of a local group of amateur moms who dared to initiate change in the school division’s regulations without prior consent from the organization’s experts. The result was that I not only questioned the school division’s regulations, going where the “experts” feared to tread, but also questioned the experts’ involvement and their planned course of action.

The situation was complicated and challenging, but my fellow coalition members and I were committed to riding it out, and the end result was a local homeschool regulation that does not stray beyond state law. This kind of personal action empowers individuals to stick up for themselves, and makes us each the authority of our own lives, rather than relegating it to the domain of “experts.” We need to be our own experts. Doing so makes us stronger, better, more courageous people who feel good about ourselves- and about what we do. Through homeschooling, I am raising my kids to be the experts of their own lives, and, in the process, doing the same for myself. Perhaps I am also creating a place where experts fear to tread.

(c) 2007, 2011, Shay Seaborne. All rights reserved. This article was first published in the September-October 2007 issue of Home Education Magazine.

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