An Expert? Ummm…No.

6 01 2011

Will Rogers defined an expert as a man fifty miles from home with a briefcase, while Mark Twain said it was an ordinary person from another town.  Regardless of the definition you choose, I am no expert.  I can’t imagine ever considering myself an expert, and I’m frankly confounded when I hear anyone describe themselves as one – an expert, that is.  I’ve even heard-tell of folks who have moved on to “other wars” because they’ve learned just about all they can learn about the Civil War.  Come on, get real.  You’re bored, you need a new challenge, a change of pace, I get it.  But spare me the “my work is done here” stuff.  Unless your specialty is percussion caps used on Burnside breech loaders or something similarly obscure, I ain’t buyin’ it. 

I realize that event organizers are going to use the E word in promotional materials.  But I want to make one thing perfectly clear – I don’t consider myself an expert on the Civil War or even the First Battle of Bull Run.  I’m confident I have readers who have studied the war and the battle for a longer period and in greater detail than have I.  [That being said, I can still entertain a room for an hour or two without boring the heck out of everybody (there are always exceptions) and pretty much guarantee that anyone who stays awake the whole time will learn something they didn’t know before, so don’t let my admission deter you from booking me, Danno.]

I know there’s a real definition of “expert” and it doesn’t mean “knows everything”, but you know what the word connotes, and you know what I mean by this.  I don’t mind so much when others call someone an expert, but it bugs the hell out of me when I hear people refer to themselves as one.

There.  I just needed to get that off my chest.  As always, you’re free to be wr…I mean, you’re free to disagree.  Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

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7 responses

6 01 2011
Terry Johnston

Amen, sir.

6 01 2011
Terry Johnston

A comment, of course, in response to the thrust of your post–not on your own qualifications, for lack of a better word, as an expert on anything. Though I’m not sure there are many folks, other than yourself, I’d go to with a question on Bull Run.

6 01 2011
Harry Smeltzer

Thanks Terry. I don’t know all – or maybe even most – of the answers, but I have good ideas about how to find them!

6 01 2011
Mike Musick

Harry: Your post really resonates with me. I worked for years in a job with the federal government where I was officially a “Subject Matter Expert” on the U.S. Civil War. I hated the word “expert,” but it evidently had some special meaning in the civil service scheme of things, and was a promotion. The title is supposed to come in handy in courts of law, though I’ve read that it alienates some jurors. Obviously, there were and are a great many things I don’t know about the subject (one imagines “OK, Mr. Expert, what was the color of the facings on the uniforms of the pre-war Regiment of Mounted Rifles?” – or some such scenario). Eventually, I learned to live with it, but the word still bugs me.

6 01 2011
Harry Smeltzer

Thanks Mike – it’s good to know you’re out there keeping guys like me in line!

7 01 2011
Dave Powell


You’ve cleaned up some of those definitions, haven’t you? I always heard that the “expert” was the A*****e from out of town.”:)

I will endorse the idea that there’s alaways more to know. I started studying Chickamauga years ago because I found Gettysburg constantly thronged with “experts,” real and imagined, and got tired of hearing/reading the latest goofy theory on why Lee lost.

But I didn’t expect to spend the next dozen years researching and collecting material on the fighting around Chattanooga, either. Still am, though. Why this coming weekend I will be taking a trip to the Wisconsin Historical Society to track down some potentially fascinating articles on a couple of aspects of the campaign. And I am always on the lookout for a new primary source.

Expert is a double-edged sword. It’s a word that connotes not just knowledge, but also perhaps a degree of…arrogance? Self-importance? I don’t know, but I can see why folks shy away from using it.

And it can act like a red flag to some…more intense (shall we say)… hobbyists.:)

7 01 2011
Harry Smeltzer

Arrogance – yeah, that sounds like the right word. Thanks Dave!

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