Specialization is for insects.

In defense of renaissance men and women everywhere.

Note: This post really serves as an outline to myself to make a longer, data-driven argument about this concept.

The scene is horrific: the machine has been declared victorious, and the humans have been taken over.  Their time as drones, pursuing their narrow, repetitive tasks – like cogs in a wheel – has just begun.  Each is focused on the mechanics of their own assignments, unable to see the forest for the trees and largely unaware of their state of enslavement. The machine itself would grin inwardly for its newfound efficiency – if only it had any emotion at all.

Listless plot from a B sci-fi flick?  Perhaps.  But this scenario is one we approach in our increasing state of personal specialization.  In a new global economy where corporations, organizations, and individuals struggle to find their niche, we are on the cusp of losing the ability to effectively handle the problems of the day, large and small – and operating only at the whim of Adam Smith’s economic machinery.

Let’s take a look at why this is the case.  How have we become so good at discouraging the development of renaissance men and women?

  • First, this scenario is effective for a short-sighted economic engine like ours.  It’s efficient in the near-term – each individual simply trains to provide a set of skills to the larger whole, and becomes responsible only for tasks that fall under their domain.  We’ve developed an education system and surrounding culture that help to support this.  In western society, we increasingly see (and sell) education only as a means of increasing an individual’s job marketability.  And with few exceptions, there’s an implicit end-date too – the time when your education stops, and your economic contribution to the whole begins.  In this time-limited scenario, individuals have chosen to pursue the path with the greatest perceived return on investment.  If you want to be well-rounded, you do so on your own time.  We don’t value it economically.
  • The teaching of discrete subjects, a concept introduced as early as kindergarten, contributes to this.  In partitioning knowledge into silos – largely for the ease of administering information, and a result of the specialized nature of the instructors themselves – we predispose young minds into seeing mathematics as fundamentally separate from music, for example, or science separate from history.  Any introduction to a unified theory of knowledge happens long after this damage has been done, if at all.  To the intellectually lazy, those discrete bins of information are easier to handle – that they’re a poor representation of reality is secondary.  Combined with ever-limited education resources, this means children have to choose some discrete bins over others, without grasping their interrelatedness – say in picking art over chemistry, or physics over literature.  And trying to reverse such a decision down the road in a system of course prerequisites is nearly impossible.
  • We’ve developed cultural aphorisms about exactly this that have now become pejoratives. “Jack of all trades, master of none” has equivalents in languages spoken all over the world.  It implies that breadth and mastery cannot co-exist.  But there’s a distinction here that people tend to miss – yes, being good at nothing is tangibly inferior to being good at one thing.  But being good at more than one thing is entirely possible, and tangibly better than either of the other options.  People tend to confuse the pursuits of the aimless with those of the multi-disciplinary.  That the latter is less common only underscores how difficult we make this process.  The aimless here have given us Renaissance folk a bad rap.

Specialization makes for an efficient population of automatons, but it fundamentally ignores that which makes us human.  To thrive, to really show what it can do, the human brain needs a substrate bigger and richer than any one discipline alone. 

But this endemic pursuit of specialization has consequences far beyond my romanticized notions of human intelligence.  From our dependence on fossil fuels to democratic participation; from war and the resolution of conflict to the modern plights of poverty, hunger, and disease – all of the important problems we face as a society today are interdisciplinary by nature.  It is impossible to contemplate any of these within the silo of a single domain of knowledge.  Today, individuals in the most privileged societies might agree that things should be done about, say, resource management and environmental stewardship, but feel that such problems are just too big. “Definitely too big for me to understand.  After all, I’m just a __________”.  The most dangerous form of specialization is the one that breeds apathy.

To survive as a society, we must combat this – to take sufficient ownership of the problems we want to see fixed, to fight dwindling civic engagement, and to promote the cross-pollination and innovative thinking we need in order to effectively deal with the problems of the age.  The capacity to see the connections between the disciplines is the true sum of human intelligence, and our survival depends on our ability to apply these connections in novel ways.

So I say to you, friends: cast off your shackles!  Be no longer confined to singular skills and professional pursuits.  Find ways to broaden yourself, and we will all be better off for it.  Because it turns out that the old aphorism isn’t even the full idiom – it really reads “Jack of all trades, master of none; but oft-times better than master of one”.

Leave a Reply