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On amateurs, professionals, and experts - how young people can get respect

By Kate Greene

Amateurs, professionals, and experts – and how young people can get respect from older people while they’re working and volunteering.

I recently had a chat with a life learning teenager. She has been volunteering at a dance school that is owned by a friend of her family who is supportive of living and learning without school. Cassie is actually bartering her time teaching the school’s littlest children in exchange for more advanced lessons for herself.

Although she has been dancing since she was three and has won many awards, she is ten years younger than any of the paid staff. And she is worried about the lack of respect she gets from many of the young students’ parents. “I guess the staff have been ‘educated’ about me by Mona (the owner),” she says. “And by now I have demonstrated both my dancing and teaching abilities to them, so they accept me as one of them. But some of the parents totally ignore me and talk to whomever else is there, completely looking through me as if I don’t exist.”

One parent recently approached Mona asking about Cassie’s “formal teaching qualifications” and expressing concern about her young age. She said she was “unofficially” speaking on behalf of all the other parents, who felt like they weren’t getting their money’s worth when Cassie was in charge of a class, even though they felt she was a capable teacher. Cassie told me that the classes are about having fun, moving to music, and learning some basic balance exercises.

I hope Mona will stand up for Cassie. But she just might have to give in to her paying clients. Or maybe they would be more comfortable if Cassie had the role of an apprentice, not yet fully in charge of a class. I sympathize with everyone in this situation because, putting aside any issues of credentials actually required to award marks within a specific training regimen, we’re a credential-crazed society that worships expertism and professionalism – even though there is confusion about the meaning of those words.

“Making money from one’s talent and training is undoubtedly a good thing. But that definition of a professional doesn’t necessarily mean the person is better at something or (outside of some obvious fields) more qualified to engage in that activity.”

When I told Life Learning Magazine editor Wendy Priesnitz about my conversation with Cassie, she told me about Andrew Keen’s 2008 book The Cult of the Amateur. It is about the media and the Internet. But it’s relevant to Cassie’s situation, and provides some food for thought for life learners in general.

Keen defines “amateurs” as uneducated, untrained, and uncredentialed, and even calls them “monkeys.” He confuses – even conflates – talent and training: “Talent always has been, and will always be, scarce. So just as I want my doctor to have gone to a credible medical school and my lawyer to have passed the bar exam, I want to be informed and entertained by trained, talented professionals.” I agree that I’d like my brain surgeon to be highly trained and credentialed (as well as competent, passionate, awake...talented), but I don’t think that many other people need credentials to be effective in their chosen work. In fact, as Priesnitz says, when it comes to the entertainment world, raw, untrained talent can be more entertaining because it retains its passion, awareness, and innocence.

People who have become well-trained professionals are thought of as experts, although neither training nor that elusive quality of professionalism necessarily mean they know their stuff. But, as Keen notes, that’s generally where the money lies, and that is another definition of professionalism, as compared to the non-paid amateur.

Making money from one’s talent and training is undoubtedly a good thing. But that definition of a professional doesn’t necessarily mean the person is better at something or (outside of some obvious fields) more qualified to engage in that activity. I am guessing here, but I think Cassie probably works harder than she might if she was on paid staff at the dance school, just because she is having to prove herself.

Keen also confuses expertism with seriousness. He writes: “The simple ownership of a computer and an Internet connection doesn’t transform one into a serious journalist any more than having access to a kitchen makes one into a serious cook.” I think “serious” may be the wrong word. If he means “skilled,” then having a computer and Internet connection, or a kitchen, will go a long way toward developing skill…if one has the serious interest.

More recently, a guy named Michael Kozlowski, who is the Editor-in-Chief of the website Good e-Reader, wrote online that since self-publishing has become so accessible there is a need to “quantify a distinction between an (sic) writer and a professional author.” A line needs to be drawn in the sand, says Michael, “so that we know who is the real deal. Just because its (sic) easy to upload your written word, so that it can be downloaded to another machine does not make you an author, any more than me buying a stethoscope allows me to be called a doctor. A ‘singer’ is someone who sings. A ‘professional singer’ is someone who makes a living from singing.” I don’t see how his proposed distinction will help me decide whether or not a writer/author’s work is worth reading…and I do not want to be sarcastic, but his lousy writing makes my point!

“Young people could use our support and advocacy as they seek respect in an adult world as volunteers or even workers.”

The macro solution is that each of us should learn and use discernment and, in the case of the media that Keen writes about, become media literate. (And if we see ourselves sharing news as trained/experienced journalists do, then we should learn about fact-checking, sources, grammar, and so on.) We also need to find ways to demonstrate certain kinds of knowledge and ability without formal credentials, to abolish the structures of authority that too often surround information and act as unnecessary occupational gateways, to live and learn actively rather than passively, and to respect young people.

Meanwhile, at the micro level, young people like Cassie could use our support and advocacy as they seek respect in an adult world as volunteers or even workers. If she is as talented, mature, and capable as she seems to be, there is no reason why she shouldn’t be able to help young children learn about rhythm and movement; and certainly her age should not be a barrier. Unfortunately, she just might have to work a bit harder to get some respect, and be patient with her students’ parents. Here’s hoping her continued “professional” behavior might open some eyes and minds to the fact that age and credentials don’t always matter.

Kate Greene is a freelance writer and life learning mom who currently lives on Canada’s east coast with her family of five people and three animals, but plans to start worldschooling next year.

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