Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Specialist and the Generalist

A recent Pitchers and Poets podcast spoke to an issue about which I have a strong opinion.  I suppose I have a great many strong opinions - or at least I present them strongly - but I would argue that the vast majority of those remain conditional.  It is important, I think, to be open-minded enough to be persuaded by a contrary, or more likely, an entirely new perspective on an issue.

For my own part, my political convictions - which were (and are) quite strong - have undergone quite a few radical shifts since I first was granted the right to vote.  The outcome of that was, in the 2008 election, a ballot which included at least one vote for a member of each of the following parties: Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Green, and Independent.  Why? Because I felt, in each of those races, that the party in question was irrelevant, and that the person most capable of doing the job was worthy of my vote.  Anyway, the point here is not to discuss politics, but to point out that even what seems a fervent position on my part is liable to change if I am confronted with a valid alternative that seems compelling enough.  At the very least, I am easily persuaded by nuance, especially nuance that takes on accepted cultural narratives.

There is, however, one duality which I reluctantly accept, and about which I firmly and probably irrevocably believe in one position.  That duality is specialization versus generalization, or the competing ideas that a person should focus on learning a small number of things exceedingly well, on the one hand, or a large number of things in less depth.  Of course, as Ted and Eric point out in their podcast, we live in a time where being a generalist is almost impossible.  Specialization has so much won the day that it's practically a sin to have too many interests.

Of course, I think it's difficult to draw an exact line between the specialist and the generalist.  How many fields must one study to be a generalist?  How advanced must a person's knowledge of a particular field be in order to qualify as a specialist?  What about people who are somewhere in between?  And, moreover, isn't the true generalist also a specialist in some sense?

All of those are valid questions, and I think the duality here is - like most dualities - not totally fair.  I believe there are a great many people who are, in fact, both generalists and specialists, and there's no reason those things have to be mutually exclusive.  I think there is, however, a marked difference in mentality between the two.  It is especially rare to find someone who will advocate specialization whilst also celebrating the "Renaissance Man," as we like to call generalists (implying their anachronism).

It seems to me, however, that this is a horrible mistake, and particularly important in education.  A lot of what people say is "wrong" with education amounts to this: it's not specialized enough.  Certainly it's not fair to look at students and to say that they all need the exact same, incredibly broad education, but it's also not fair to say that we should tailor everything we teach to some appropriate and predetermined career pathway for each student.  Specialization, at its extreme, suggests that students should not learn anything that isn't directly relevant to what they're going to do in their lives.  Of course, the extreme generalist learns anything completely regardless of its value, which is equally silly, but that's the point.  Going to an extreme here is bad, and these days, as we cut arts programs, recess time, and gym class, we're much closer to the extreme of specialization.

The reason this debate is important in education, however, reaches far beyond the classroom.  It is in our adult lives where we, generally speaking, are forced to specialize most.  Indeed, the older we get and the further along we go in our career paths, the more and more narrow our focus becomes.  Professors at most Universities don't just study a field (like Sociology) or even a sub-field (like the Sociology of Business), but a specific aspect of that sub-field (like gender relations in rural small businesses, or some such).  At a certain point, the robust thought processes that shaped the original study become so fine that, I would argue, they are no longer useful.

The same could be said in the business world.  One of the reasons we have such a strongly established hierarchical structure in business - besides being a vestige of feudalism - is the fact that all of the specialists that make multi-national corporations go can't speak to each other without an interpreter.  The fact of being able to talk to the IT guy, the operations guy, the finances guy, and the engineer, and the ability to translate between those branches is, as far as I'm concerned, the primary function of most executives at major companies.  Making decisions and selling the company are of minor importance by comparison.

Unlike in academia, however, in business there is an established method for getting specialists to interact, and it mostly works.  Indeed, if specialization didn't work, we wouldn't use it.  It's almost impossible to argue with specialization, in fact, from within our existing social and economic system, because of how effective it is.  The point, however, is that if we step outside of the specialized world and look at the other consequences of a society built around the extreme specialist, it's not quite as pretty as it seems from the inside.

Bertrand Russell was fond of pointing out that things like useless knowledge and idle inquiry are vital to a person's happiness.  A child does not ask questions because he wants to master his world, but merely because he is curious.  Over time, curiosity tends to diminish and ambition increase, and as a result people become more successful and less happy.  Education, from my perspective, works best not when it forwards a person's professional goals, but when it reminds him or her that there are other important goals as well.  What good is money if you are so specialized that you don't know where and when to spend it?  What good is success if you are so specialized that you can't have a conversation with anyone?

From the individual point of view, specialization, I think, can be somewhat soul-crushing.  A professor I had at Stanford told me that the day he got tenure was one of the best and saddest of his life.  Best because he was secure and successful, saddest because it meant he was locked in, all of the potential paths he might take had been narrowed to one that he had taken and would take from then on.  Why must we do that to people?  Does our society benefit so much that taking away the wonder of exploration and inquiry into ideas unknown and unconsidered is necessary?

The answer, I think, is clearly no.  Our society may benefit from specialization in that we are able to produce more goods, more "knowledge" (which so few people can use, because it's highly specialized), and more advertising.  But isn't one of the biggest problems we face as a world that we produce too much?  There are too many people on the world, eating too much food, using too much plastic, guzzling too much gas, and wasting too much electricity.  It's all well and good to address those problems by creating legions of conservation specialists, I suppose, but wouldn't it be better to just ease up off the ever-racing production line?  Indeed, it seems to me a self-perpetuating cycle.  Less specialized work means more generalization, more "Renaissance Men" who can step back and see that, hey, the world is a better place when we communicate more and produce less.

Again, I don't advocate the extreme, here, else nothing at all would get done and we'd all starve, but it seems to me that we've ventured too far in the direction of specialization.  What's more, my other fervently held opinions - that process is more important than outcome, and that cooperation is generally a better model than competition - seem to me to be complementary here.  Specialization encourages competition, which in turn is concerned with outcomes.  Generalization encourages cooperation, which is much more about processes (stuff like how people work together and whether they're doing the right thing) than outcomes.

All told, it's unlikely that we'll see a world of generalists anytime soon.  But it is the case, in my experience, that we "Renaissance Men" have serious advantages, even in this society, over extreme specialists.  Generalists learn to say "both... and..." while specialists are stuck with "either... or..."  As a teacher, there's no bigger selling point: generalists get to be leaders and visionaries, while specialists have to do what they're told.    As a human being, I believe my breadth of interests may make it harder for me to define myself to other people, but it makes it easier for me to move around joyfully and inquisitively.  And, really, what else is there?

No comments:

Post a Comment