In a pre-industrial society there were very few occupational groups and most people lived it a world in which it made sense to be a generalist, to possess and practice of variety of skills. Nowadays it is the very opposite. People tend to focus their employed working lives in ever narrower specialisms. They need higher and higher formal qualifications to get a job at all. A major part of the argument here is that this has consequences for the ability of a society to understand itself and its environment. This is reflected in a degradation of discourse about problems and what might be done about them.
The idea of a clearing is of course a metaphor and analogous metaphors describe the limits of knowledge in different contexts. For example “the fog of war” describes how, in conditions of human conflict, accurate knowledge that will help one decide what to do is likely to be very difficult to come by. Above all this is because enemies are likely to be seeking advantage by secrecy, spreading false information and seeking to create misinterpretations. All these add greater complication to the fact that in war situations may be fast moving and changing dramatically.
“What characterizes the division of labour inside modern society is that it engenders specialized functions, specialists, and with them craft-idiocy.”
“We are struck with admiration,” says Lemontey, “when we see among the Ancients the same person distinguishing himself to a high degree as philosopher, poet, orator, historian, priest, administrator, general of an army. Our souls are appalled at the sight of so vast a domain. Each one of us plants his hedge and shuts himself up in his enclosure. I do not know whether by this parcellation the field is enlarged, but I do know that man is belittled.”
“Where effects that are the domain of a particular specialist field may initially be more pronounced, or discovered at an earlier stage, this can lead to a situation where regulatory appraisal becomes unduly dominated by, even ‘captive’ to, a particular discipline. This can lead to a form of ‘institutional’ ignorance, as opposed to the society-wide ignorance discussed above. For both asbestos and ionising radiation the setting of standards was strongly influenced by the preoccupation of medical clinicians with immediate acute effects. In both cases, the toxicology and epidemiology of long term chronic effects remained relatively neglected. The introduction of MTBE was based on bodies of knowledge concerning engines, combustion and air pollution. The water pollution aspects associated with persistence and significant taste and odour problems were essentially disregarded, though the information was available.” (See Chapter 16 in http://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/environmental_issue_report_2001_22)
“….all of these are nuisances that are associated with other industries and oil and gas activities. I don’t mean to minimise them, but they are the sort of things that we can cope with. Trucks can be re-routed; noise can be put up with, land can be reclaimed just like it can after any industrial activity like quarrying.”
People are discouraged from developing their own understandings of their situation by professionals and experts with their academic qualifications. Academic qualifications in which universities get a vested interest can override the proper weight that should be given to lay experience, vernacular learning and DIY arrangements in multiple fields. Take for example, language learning. In one of his books Illich describes how in societies without a formal education system learning another language if you needed to was ordinary and unremarkable. It was nothing to boast about – and certainly did not need several years of an expensive university education.