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The Expert and Educated Incapacity

Herman Kahn

Educated incapacity often refers to an acquired or learned inability to understand or even perceive a problem, much less a solution. The original phrase, “trained incapacity,” comes from the economist Thorstein Veblen, who used it to refer, among other things, to the inability of those with engineering or sociology training to understand certain issues which they would have been able to understand if they had not had this training. The training is essential to gain the skill, and society wants these people to have the skills, so I am not objecting to the training. But the training does come at some costs by narrowing the perspectives of the individuals concerned.

I also often use the phrase to describe the limitations of the expert—or even of just the “well educated.” The more expert—or at least the more educated—a person is, the less likely that person is to see a solution when it is not within the framework in which he or she was taught to think. When a possibility comes up that is ruled out by the accepted framework, an expert—or well-educated individual—is often less likely to see it than an amateur without the confining framework. For example, one naturally prefers to consult a trained doctor than an untrained person about matters of health. But if a new cure happens to be developed that is at variance with accepted concepts, the medical profession is often the last to accept it. This problem has always existed in all professions, but it tends to be accentuated under modern conditions.

Large organizations have the tendency to proliferate new forms of expertise and specialists who are drawn largely from a very special social and cultural milieu. Bureaucracies in our technological society depend heavily upon members of the New Class—or at least recruits from graduates of universities that emphasize liberal and progressive ideologies and viewpoints, almost to the exclusion of hard or tough perspectives. Even the practice of business seems to be in danger of becoming a professional specialty. I would guess that the more prestigious the business school and the more academically difficult the training, the more likely that the graduate will be both ideologically oriented and a narrow technician, rather than a decision maker in contact with the pressures and insights of the real world.

Educated incapacity in the United States today seems to derive from the general educational and intellectual milieu rather than from a specific education. This milieu is found in clearest form at leading universities in the United States—particularly in the departments of psychology, sociology, and history, and to a degree in the humanities generally. Individuals raised in this milieu often have difficulty with relatively simple degrees of reality testing—e.g., about the attitudes of the lower middle classes, national security issues, national prestige, welfare, and race. This is not to say that other groups might not be equally biased and illusioned—only that their illusions are generally reflected in more traditional ways.

Educated incapacity is becoming a worldwide problem; in many ways, the post-industrial culture is likely both to cause and to further this “malady,” though all cultures have relatively general and deeply held educated incapacities.

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