Monday, March 16, 2009

And Now For Something Completely Different

One of the frustrating things about the modern world is its focus on specialization. To be fair, this is also one of the strengths of many businesses and organizations in the U.S. The U.S. military, for example, provides a baseline of military training to all soldiers, but then specializes them with significant additional training in their chosen field. There are few businesses where employees are cross-trained on other jobs as a matter of course. I've been thinking about all of this in my search for a new job (unlike many people, however, I still have the old one so I can afford to be a little picky). Our university system operates especially like this, with very focused majors. It is even rare for people to study multiple fields at the graduate level of education. Probably, this has a lot to do with the time it takes for such studies to bear fruit so that you can get paid.

Some of the most notable philosophers in the Western world were so-called "Rennaisance Men". Aristotle studied logic, ethics, politics, biology, and was arguably the first zoologist. Descartes attempted to reason from first principles, through the sciences, and into philosophy. Hobbes began with science and worked through religion into politics. Why did our greatest minds seek to bring together many different areas of thought? Did they see connections that we cannot?

It seems that part of being human might relate to bringing together the diverse parts of the world in ways that make sense. From an individual's perspective, all thoughts, experiences, sensations, and emotions are jumbled together. Although we try to split out the various parts of the world, perhaps it is this internal mixture that is leaking through making us want to fit such varied ideas together.

Personally, I try to remain something of a generalist. I am interested in so many different fields that I find it challenging to constrain my inquiries to one or two. While I'm sure it's impossible to be in expert in more than one, I wonder whether any of them is truly split apart from the others. I think we've shown over the course of time that many "Sciences" are interrelated, and many of the "Arts" are as well. I think we see true genius in those who can seamlessly integrate the two. By directing ourselves toward this interdisciplinary thought we may learn more than we bargained for.


Pocket Size said...

You've hit upon one of my biggest pet peeves. I actually think that specialization is the death of creativity and intellectualism. If I were hiring people, I would be looking for the applicants who can, as you say, fit the pieces together. Someone who can relate concepts that, while outside the particular field in which they're working, are still relevant to the problem at hand. Academically speaking, I feel that the study of history is empty without also studying religion, philosophy, and the arts. The arts can barely be understood without studying history and in some areas also religion (just try and understand medieval European art without knowing much about Christianity...) In fact, I think it's specialization that's responsible for the blatantly false assumptions that people make about things. As they say, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and if you only ever read Arthurian romance you might well think that the middle ages was really like that. Not necessarily the monsters and fantasy aspects, but the chivalry and the glamor. And then wouldn't it come as quite a blow to find out that knights were more like the thugs we see on The Sopranos than the heroes we see in stories? Without a sense of context, all the study in the world can end up being more damaging than helpful.

P.Proteus1035 said...

I'm also a bit of a generalist, mostly because I don't invest the time in any one thing to "master" it because of my attention span and partially because I find myself drawn in too many directions to limit myself.

Generations ago a man was expected to know how to cook, garden, tend cattle, shoot with skill, stitch a wound ad nauseam. With the advent of modern inventions which "ease" life we've drifted away from that since it's no longer necessity. I'll tell you this though, in the event of global disaster only the generalists will survive with anything like comfort.

I believe it's a great disservice to ourselves as a people to have deprived ourselves of so much "skill".