The Rustication of Expertise

By Tom Peters | In the days of yore it was not uncommon for universities in Britain and the U.S. to have a policy called "rustication." If a student acted up academically, he would be sent away from the university for a few months to think about his transgressions and, ideally, rededicate himself to the life of the university. As the term "rustication" implies, the concept in its pure form involves being sent down to the farm. John Dryden, after rustication I doubt that many rusticated scholars, such as the young Milton, Dryden, and Swinburne, actually slopped any hogs, but the thought of them knee-deep in muck provides some measure of solace and encouragement for us all.

Unfortunately, although a few universities still have rustication rules in their policies and procedures manuals, the practice seems to have declined precipitously in the mid-nineteenth century. Pity. Spare the rustication, spoil the scholar. That's my motto.

Back in 2000, I gave a talk about e-books at a small community college in a decidedly rustic area of West Central Illinois. It was an evening talk, and only a half-dozen people attended, which sounds like a recipe for a thoroughly forgettable evening.

In fact, it was a memorable evening. In attendance was a farm wife who happened to be an expert on e-books. She knew all about the technology, the budding industry, the key issues, and the opportunities. Truth be told, she probably knew more about e-books than I did.

She was indeed a wife and mother who lived on a farm (and was not affiliated with any institution of higher education, big corporation, think tank, etc.), but please do not conjure up the woman in Grant Wood's iconic painting American Gothic, or Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, or even Meryl Streep in the film version of The Bridges of Madison County.

Being a wife and mother for a farm family was part of her life, and she seemed to be thoroughly enjoying her life, but she used the Internet, the Web, and digital libraries to cultivate her avocational interests. Evidently, she had developed her expertise in the e-book movement entirely on her own. She was a sterling example of the self-motivated lifelong learner that we librarians strive to support and serve.

My tentative thesis is this: As more and more information becomes available in digital format to just about everyone with access to the Internet, the rustication of expertise may become a pronounced feature of humanity's intellectual landscape. In the future, the percentage of experts who are affiliated with universities may decline.

Hedy Lamarr I admit it will be a tough thesis to test and validate. Experts who were “ordinary citizens” have existed throughout history, long before the dawn of the digital age. Often their self-developed areas of expertise have little in common with the main channels of their lives. The vampish movie actress Hedy Lamarr, for example, was also an expert theorist in telecommunications and encryption.

My memory is terrible, but I do not recall ever reading or hearing about what I call the “rustication of expertise” in the literature of librarianship or at professional conferences. Gentle reader, if you have, please share a thought or citation in the comments area.

Perhaps by definition, experts are rare birds. Although supporting “amateur” experts may be part of the missions of many libraries, I doubt it ever will receive as much attention and organizational resources as, say, supporting literacy, which affects the lives of a much larger segment of the population. Nevertheless, if we take the idea of self-motivated lifelong learning seriously, we should foster and support the intellectual pursuits of the experts in our midst, who are permanently rusticated, either by circumstance or choice.

If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a worldwide web of interoperable digital information and communication systems to support a world of atomized amateur experts. The farm wife who attended the e-book discussion back in 2000 may have been an ardent user of her local public library, but she developed her expertise by searching and reading incredible amounts of information gleaned from a wide variety of digital information services.
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