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A History of Distinction
Historian Wilfred McClay challenges students to question expertise and the geography of policy, as the 2009-10 William E. Simon Distinguished Visiting Professor at the School of Public Policy.
As an expert scholar of American society, historian Wilfred McClay did something a little different when he joined the faculty at the School of Public Policy as the 2009-10 William E. Simon Distinguished Visiting Professor. His challenged the students of his fall semester class to question the very notion of expertise and the authority implied by the word "expert." "We raised the question, how do we ensure the experts are accountable in their own field?" McClay says.
The study of American society has been McClay's mainstay throughout his career, so he is keenly aware of the numerous ways in which experts have shaped policy and law. He cites healthcare, forensic science, and the climate as areas crucial to policy or justice in which expert testimony can literally change, or at the very least affect, lives.
"DNA testing plays a large role in the administration of justice, yet the average person on a jury cannot interpret a fragment at a crime scene and decude that it comes from X, Y, or Z," he says. "It requires an extraordinary amount of expertise, so we trust that they can be counted on to be honest. When you have instances in which experts are brought in on both sides of an argument, the question becomes, what kind of weight do you give to each side? Which experts are worth listening to?"
Throughout his career in academia, McClay has taught in history departments, so he deems his year at SPP a "real treat." "These students are aspiring to careers in public policy, so it can be the same material but received in a completely different way. The students pose questions with a practical edge," he confirms.
In particular, he adds, graduate students often arrive on campus with their own experiences and, sometimes, expertise. He mentions one of the students in this first class who, with several years of experience running a healthcare lobby, could weigh in with authority on the pertinent topic of healthcare expertise.
"He knew so much about the ins and outs of the mediating process that I felt as I myself was on a voyage of discovery," he affirms. "It was an exciting course for me."
This semester, he has changed direction to explore how cultural geography plays a key role in shaping policy and how the size and scale of a place can have a major impact on the safety, health, and happiness of the community. "It was Aristotle who argued that the city has to be a particular size in order to flourish," he says. "The course is designed to test this principle, and look at the various ways we construct a sense of 'place' in our towns and cities."
The ramifications of policy not aligning with the needs of a community, based on its size and scale, can be damaging. "Just as the rearing and moral formation of children seems to work best in settings possessing a certain size and shape, for example, stable intact families, so too do we need to pay attention to the size and shape of our towns and cities and organization, if we are to create optimal conditions for human flourishing, and for the cultivation of active, reflective, and virtuous citizens," McClay stresses.
"We need to find fresh ways of revitalizing a strong sense of place in our way of life, while recognizing that it will never be enough to turn back the clock or renounce modern technology," he continues. "We've had lively discussions in my class about the how the policy realm might address issues of scale."
McClay first became inspired to dig deeper into the subject of American society in order to "connect with the country I grew up in and was a part of." He had been working as the director of publications at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., when he realized he wanted to study American intellectual history at John Hopkins University.
"I got to meet leading scholars at Folger, many of whom were British, and I remember telling this to one of them. He looked deep in thought and I was excitedly waiting to hear a profound thought about what direction I should take," recalls McClay. "When he finally he spoke, it was to say, 'I didn't know there was such a thing as American intellectual history!'"
That moment spurred McClay to prove this leading scholar wrong and explore the American intellectual tradition in depth during his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University.
He has been a champion for the humanities ever since. His 1994 book, The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America, won the Merle Curti Award for the Organization of American Historians, and remains in print 16 years later. He is also the SunTrust Bank Chair of Excellence in Humanities, and a professor of history, at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, as well as the Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He also sits on the board of the National Endowment of Humanities.
Currently, he is finishing a manuscript of a collection of essays about the humanities as the editor and a contributing essayist. "All the contributors feel that the humanities are important and have been devalued by our country," says McClay.
He adds that, beyond his varied academic pursuits in the humanities, the thing that most interests him about his work is the relationship of the individual to society, which is what his book, The Masterless, was about.
"The question of to what extent we are cultural beings or individuals is central to political theory in how we think of the proper relationship of the individual to society," he says. "It remains central still to what interests me and runs like a thread through all my work."
By Sarah Fisher
McClay will present a lecture titled "The Illusion of Mastery" on Thursday, Mar. 18, at the Drescher Graduate Campus Auditorium. For more information about this event, visit the School of Public Policy Web site.