The Root of Expertise by Alex Dunedin

Here is the address at the beginning of the Ragged year in Edinburgh where I deal with the issue of expertise and how we are all a part of it.  It recaps the project and what it’s ambitions are and set the scene for the first two talks of the Ragged University year…

Welcome to the beginning of the Edinburgh Ragged University year. There will be a break between the two talks when we can eat, refresh our glasses and get to know who is in the room.  This room is a space private to you, and like any personal space, it is not monitored with forms, questionnaires or number counting.  It is a space sacred to getting to know other people on your own terms and learning something new.

charles dickens
charles dickens

Tonight, I will start the evening by telling you a little bit about the Ragged project.  It is inspired by the Ragged Schools movement of the Victorian times where communities banded together to provide free education, food and other supports when there were none.
Think Charles Dickens and Dr Barnardo and you will have the period of history in mind.  Both these people were deeply concerned with free knowledge and valuing the talents individuals have and are capable of developing when given the chance. Both these figures were greatly involved in setting up and propagating Ragged Schools; Charles Dickens travelled the country visiting and reporting on them through his social commentary, and Dr Barnardo was famously given the first sixpence by the Earl of Shaftesbury on the rooftops of London to start his Ragged school.
Before 1870, when times were also hard, communities organised themselves, pooling their resources and understandings to provide education and social supports.  This happened from end to end of the country and people of all backgrounds got involved. From the crippled cobbler of Portsmouth, John Pounds, to Sheriff Watson in Aberdeen with his industrial feeding schools, the landscape was transformed by working together to provide what was needed.
Thomas Guthrie
Thomas Guthrie

Tens of thousands of schools were created and the Reverend Thomas Guthrie championed this movement from Greyfriars’ Kirk by writing ‘A Plea For The Ragged Schools’ in 1847. Thomas Guthrie wrote this from just down the road whilst overlooking the hardship he could see in the Grassmarket.  He went on to write three more ‘pleas’ over the years reporting on the positive effects which came of providing such initiatives. He estimated at one point, that crime in Victorian Edinburgh was reduced by 75% because people could be valued and did not have to steal to eat.
Such was the compelling nature of the effects of these projects that in 1870 the Forster government passed the first Education Act, providing for the first time universal education for all children between 5 and 13 years old.  The schools of the community were absorbed by the government, further resourced and became the education system we have today across the United Kingdom.
Today, I take inspiration from history and aim to update this amazing moment in history hoping to bring about the same positive changes which the Victorians saw through creating a compassionate society.  Using available infrastructure and common technology, I believe we can once again create a network of places where we learn and become valued for what we produce improving all our lives. If you would like to help build the Ragged project or run a group of your own, please get involved.
The Ragged University is about recognising that each person is a unique and distinct body of knowledge, accredited with their life experience and with a membership of one.  Working not as an alternative to formal education but as an annex to it, we can enjoy sharing what we have invested our lives in, learn skills like public speaking, and nurture individuals in the ordinary business of everyday life. Anyone can do a talk, everyone has something valuable to share.

When I ask people if they would like to do a talk many say to me “…but I am not an expert”… …well, I looked up the origin of the word ‘expert’ and found this:

Expert – the adjective – comes from the late 14th century from the Old French ‘expert’ and directly from Latin ‘expertus’, past participle of ‘experiri’ meaning “to try, to test”.  The noun gives a sense of “person wise through experience” Well, I suggest to you all in this room, that you are wise through experience.
There is a great difference between this and claiming to be an authority.  The criteria for sharing in the Ragged project is a passion for what you do – it is through this passion that I believe subjects become animated and interesting, and that people become good at what they do because they enjoy all the little details of what they experience…
The Ragged project is about sharing this in social spaces and enjoying doing so.  I argue that it is through this sharing process of communication and conversation in friendly circumstances, that great knowledge emerges. To finish this introduction, I will read an excerpt from the preface to Novum Organon by Francis Bacon.  This book revolutionised our conception of knowledge and who has it, demonstrating that it is in fact shared by all:

“The more ancient of the Greeks took up with better judgement, a position between these two extremes; between the presumption of pronouncing on everything, and the despair of comprehending anything; and though frequently and bitterly complaining of the difficulty of inquiry and the obscurity of things, like impatient horses champing at the bit, they did not the less follow up their object and engage with nature, thinking that this very question, of whether or not anything can be known, was to be settled not by arguing, but by trying.”