The Specialist and the Generalist

books on wooden shelves inside library
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For nearly two weeks now, I’ve had in my head an op-ed I read in the New York Times by Molly Worthen titled, “The Fight Over Tenure Is Not Really About Tenure.” As someone who knows little about the political structure of institutions of higher learning, I’m fascinated by the concept of tenure, which is what attracted me to the piece in the first place. A line from that piece keeps coming back to me, almost haunting me these last two weeks:

In graduate school, aspiring professors often hear: Don’t be overly broad in your dissertation; you’ll have to get it done and published, because hiring committees care far more about that than how prepared you are to teach a wide range of subjects. Academic freedom no longer includes freedom to be a generalist.

It is the last line, which I bolded in the quote, which has been coming back to me. All through high school and college, I never thought in terms of specialists and generalists. Indeed, I never really considered the possibility of a “generalist” until reading that that was how Isaac Asimov described himself. Today, I think of myself as a generalist, with a fair amount of knowledge over a wide (although not exhaustive) range of subjects, but not a great deal of depth in any but one or two. And even in those areas, I wouldn’t consider myself a “specialist.” Indeed, at work, I think myself as a generalist. I write code in a dozen different languages, but I’m not an engineer, and I refused the appellation “software engineer” because to me, an engineer is a trained specialist, and I am not. I am capable in the technical world in wide variety of areas, but a specialist in none.

This got me thinking about what it means to be a specialist versus a generalists, and how I ended up in the latter category.

My experience growing up is that we tend to start with the goal of becoming a specialist. As a six or seven year old, a discovered a wonderful book on astronomy in the public library that turned my eyes to the stars. I got a telescope and would head out in the back yard with my dad to look at the stars and planets. I decided, then, that I wanted to be an astronomer. Let’s set aside, for the moment, that there are all kinds of sub-specialties in astronomy. To a seven year old, an astronomer is a specialist. Other kids had specialties that aimed for as well: doctors, lawyers, teachers, police officers, fire fighters, and perhaps the most specialized job that ever existed, President of the United States.This is what I mean when I say we begin with the goal of becoming a specialist.

Of course, specialists are valued for the skillset they bring to their work. So it makes sense we move from the more general to the more specific. After all, this is also how we learn.

Somewhere along the way, however, I was diverted away from being a specialist into being a generalist. A combination of several factors came together, like two ocean waves, to bring this about. And like the collision of two waves that form one larger wave, it was a complete accident.

The first of these factors was curiosity. I’ve always been curious about the world and how it works, not any one part of it specifically, but the whole thing. When I discovered computer programming, I wanted to know how that worked. When I watched a baseball game, I wanted to know how the game came to be. Curiosity drives some people to become specialists. In my case, I didn’t want to know about just one thing, I wanted to know about everything. I can’t explain why this is, but it is how I have always been. Perhaps the understanding that a wide-range of knowledge brings provides comfort in an otherwise chaotic world. I suspect this is part of it, because when my kids are nervous about something–thunder, for example–my first instinct is to explain to them what the thunder really is, and what causes it.

The second factor was my discovery of libraries. At an early age, my mom told me that books could take me anywhere; that I could find the answer to almost anything I was looking for somewhere in a book. I don’t know where I’d be without libraries; certainly not where I am today. Libraries fed that initial curiosity. My mom was right: I could find the answers I was looking for somewhere in a book; and a lot of those books were in libraries.

A strange thing happened, however. Once I became acquainted with a subject, and learned something about it, my curiosity was sated, and often, directed somewhere else.Today I call this the butterfly effect of reading. There were endless questions to find answers to and no single question held me interest strongly enough to make me want to delve deep into the realm of specialization. I’d rather go find the answer to the next question. In this regard, I was incredibly lucky: I went to a high school which focused on breadth of learning rather than depth; one centered around an interdisciplinary “core” that allowed us to see subjects through multiple lenses. Learning about limits in math, was coupled by learning about Zeno the philosopher in our “core” classes; studying the nature of the universe in physics was paired with learning about the birth of philosophy and how people began to explain the world around them. Literature and art history was layered upon this, so that limits and Zeno might be coupled with M.C. Escher’s art.

It is my experience that grade school taught me to read, high school taught me to think critically about what I read and related it to other things I’d read, and college taught me how to learn. Through grade school, high school, and college, thanks to curiosity and libraries, I was nudged in the direction of being a generalist, so that when I graduated, I was finally prepared to learn, I wanted to learn at least a little about everything, rather than spend a lot of time on one thing. Learning a little of everything allowed me to make use of the tools I’d been provided with. The more I read, the more I began to relate seemingly unrelated topics. The more I read, the more I felt I had a holistic view of things, rather than a narrow view. In short, I’d become a generalist.

Perhaps the comparison of the specialist and the generalist is nothing more than a recasting of specializing in the sciences versus liberal arts. The latter is often derided for the term “liberal” but I understand it to mean “broad” as opposed to any political affiliation. I make no judgement of the value of specializing compared to generalizing. Both are valuable and necessary. What concerns me, what has been sticking with me, and returning to my thoughts over the last couple of weeks is this idea that academic freedom no longer includes the freedom to be a generalist. If this is true, it would seem we have found yet another way to limit ourselves unnecessarily.

If all that matters in the business world and the academic world is hiring specialists, then what is the point of being a generalist?

For me, it is about feeding that curiosity. Being a generalist did not prevent me from getting a good job. It might have prevented me from climbing higher on the ladder: I have an undergraduate degree in political science and journalism. Many positions higher up the ladder seem to go to people with specialties: MBAs, Ph.D’s, and people with degrees in specific areas of computing: information security, software engineering, etc. But I’m okay with that. I am believer in learning for learning’s sake, and if one thing depresses me more than anything else, it is that learning for learning’s sake is no longer deemed valuable. I see it in my own kids’ educations, where they are taught to pass tests, not to really learn. But that is a topic for another day. For me, I have to learn more, I’m always curious, it is a hunger in me like those that vampire’s are alleged to have in fiction: the more they consume, the hungrier they get.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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