Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Against Specialisation

Intellectually, I am what you call “jack of all trades, master of none.” And I have chosen to be that way. I have long been convinced that the contemporary obsession with specialisation has bred a generation of scholars who are unable to make necessary connections across the academic disciplines. This is but one symptom of the fragmentation endemic of postmodernism, whereby everything is seen in isolation from the whole. No only are the connections between one field and another field lost, but even within specific subjects, such as history or Biblical studies, insufficient attention is given to the metanarratives. Academics as well as the common ‘man on the street’ think increasingly in slices, as David Wells as shown in his excellent book Losing Our Virtue, or as Gene Veith has shown in Postmodern Times.

I have recently read some articles that have encouraged me that I am on the right track as a generalist rather than a specialist. In his article ‘Classical Worldview’, Fritz Hinrichs writes,

Classical education aims to educate the “whole man” rather than produce specialists who are only capable in narrow areas of expertise. The pagans thought that if you were not bound to eking out your livelihood by toiling in the fields from dawn to dusk, you ought to pursue the life of the well-rounded “scholar” (from the Greek word skhole- literally, one who has leisure). It was thought menial to “specialize” in one task and develop a disproportionate level of skill in that particular area. Philip of Macedon, upon hearing his son play the harp with great virtuosity, asked him, “Are you not ashamed to play as well as that?” The King’s assumption was that the prince should obviously be in need of developing so many other skills that he would not have enough time to attain such a level of proficiency at the harp. Christians have also understood their responsibility to develop all of the talents that God has given us. If we do not set ourselves to developing the many faculties that God has given us, we are wastefully burying our talents in the earth.

Classical education aims to educate the “whole man” rather than produce specialists who are only capable in narrow areas of expertise. The pagans thought that if you were not bound to eking out your livelihood by toiling in the fields from dawn to dusk, you ought to pursue the life of the well-rounded “scholar” (from the Greek word skhole- literally, one who has leisure). It was thought menial to “specialize” in one task and develop a disproportionate level of skill in that particular area. Philip of Macedon, upon hearing his son play the harp with great virtuosity, asked him, “Are you not ashamed to play as well as that?” The King’s assumption was that the prince should obviously be in need of developing so many other skills that he would not have enough time to attain such a level of proficiency at the harp. Christians have also understood their responsibility to develop all of the talents that God has given us. If we do not set ourselves to developing the many faculties that God has given us, we are wastefully burying our talents in the earth....

Even though a conventional school can carry the vision of a well rounded education for its students, the purpose of the conventional school is often to abandon this vision for the faculty. Usually the main purpose of a conventional school is to give teachers the opportunity to specialize and avoid the work of having to develop mastery in all areas of study. Even though students are expected to follow a course of study that demands they be well rounded, at a conventional school they often study under those who have abandoned that quest. In order to avoid this weakness, some classically oriented schools, like St. John’s College, have not allowed their faculties members to be limited to particular areas of curriculum. Avoiding specialization not only shows greater allegiance to a unified conception of knowledge, but practically you find that to understand Shakespeare, you need to understand history and to understand history, you need understand philosophy and to understand philosophy, you need to understand mathematics and round and round you go until you find that you cannot truly understand anything without knowing a little about everything.

In his article 'Seeing Whole', Rev'd Dr. Gordon Preece takes up this same theme, from a slightly different angle. (If you click on my hyperlink, you need to scroll down a way before his article appears).

In our time, it is said, knowledge has exploded - and wisdom imploded. Expanding knowledge has become more specialised, and more scattered among specialists; while wisdom, requiring attention to the whole, has become subverted. In this situation we need competent Christian 'generalists': people who are neither expert nor uninformed, but are 'good enough' generalists: reasonably well-rounded, well-read, public Christian intellectuals and professionals.

There is nothing wrong with specialisation as such. It reflects our creaturely finitude of time, energy, health, ability, interest and calling. But there is an over-specialisation which, coupled with secular academic and professional perfectionism, leads to idolatry (in which the part is elevated to the whole) and to reductionism (in which the whole is reduced to its parts). Examples of these are 'the market' as master narrative, modernist scientism, and the postmodern reduction of life to language.

In Western society, the integration of life has become harder to achieve down the centuries. Ever since the rise of universities in the 12th century, academic disciplines have grown more specialised until today we have post-modern poly-versities. Industrialisation has brought the separation of life-spheres into work, home, church, and so on. And from advancing secular specialists Christians have fled - with the ‘God of the gaps’ - into the arms of clerical religious specialists: specialists who in turn have received a theological training increasingly splintered into sub-specialties....


A Christian response to this situation is to posit the grace-filled concept of the ‘good enough’ generalist. A competent 'good enough' generalist stands half-way between ignorance and infallibility. Such a person humbly recognises the limits of their own knowledge, but believes that the risks are worth bearing of engaging beyond their speciality in order to take seriously the personal, moral and theological dimensions of all allegedly secular knowledge. In so doing they become a more rounded human being and disciple of Christ, ready to claim for Him all of life including the ethics of boardroom, bedroom and ballot-box.


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