Wednesday, January 18, 2006


Should we specialize?

Do you agree with this Heinlein quotation: "A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."?

I agree 100%. There is nothing that a person cannot do if they put their mind to it.
Yes, very much. I think anyone with an appreciation for and desire to be skilled, human, humble, beautiful, sustainable, interesting, attractive, fit, healthy, wealthy, and wise would agree too.
My heroes have always been generalists & that is ultimately the stance I've taken in my own life -- my passion is for connecting the dots between disciplines. We owe tremendous debt,however, to people who do choose to specialize & invest years of labor into learning as much as they can about very narrow subjects. It is that wealth of detailed knowledge that generalists draw from. But there is a difference between the bias, in this regard, that we assume in our intellectual/professional lives as opposed to our personal lives as whole human beings. Surely we should strive to cultivate the broadest possible world view & appreciation of - if not aptitude for - multiple disciplines...
Some people would agree with this idea simply because Lazarus Long is never wrong :).

Others will agree, myself included, out of general principle. I firmly believe that overspecialization leads to fossilization.

However, the harsh reality of the matter is that the current models of capitalism and overall population density pressures individuals into specialization.

It seems that generalists, in the larger capitalistic population, tend to limit their generalization to avocations as opposed to what generates their primary incomes. There are, of course, exceptions.

So, while I agree wholeheartedly with Heinlein's ideals, I think that it is impractical for the majority to be true generalists in a densely populated, capitalistic society.

However, there is much to be said for balancing generalization with specialization.
when the inernet had just started spreading in italy, one of the first emails my dad sent me had these words in it, and nothing else.
I guess i'll do the same with his nephews, possibly before the end of the internet :-)
Let's not confuse the ability to "speak intelligently" about many fields, with being an expert in that field. Most (not all) of mankind's breakthroughs were made by specialists. We can't all be DaVinci. On the other hand, we need generalists (like Fuller, Clark and Pauling) to see the connection between different fields.
A specialist is someone with the technical ability to modify the genetic structure of corn.

A more broad minded thinker is one who can explain coherently why this is a very foolish thing to do.
Yes, a human being should be able to do all those things. But not the same human being. And certainly not all at once. I do NOT want to travel on a ship where the conn is held by someone who is planning an invasion and cooking dinner while pitching manure and diapering a baby.

Okay, okay, the principle is fine: people can learn. But people also have different innate abilities and limited learning capacities. If the statement means a person should be able to do each and every one of those things, it is expecting too much. What about people who are handicapped, injured, aged, or ill? What about community and trade? Labor specialization is not confined to insects. A great potter can be just as human as a great weaver and they can each be as human as a great house builder. This Nietszchean notion of everySuperman for himself--and I do mean man, because it is a sexist notion in essence--devalues people who have special talents, or limited abilities and overlooks the degree of interdependence we have in a normal human village or urban setting. I don't mean that everybody should be reduced to the labor role of a pin-puller--just that everybody can't be expected to do everything. That is why we need each other.
Some specialization is people who specialize in brain surgery. Other than that, we should have a generally broad range of talents as human beings.
I think part of the reason for the crisis that western civilization is facing is the fact that capitalism values specialists, not big picture thinkers.

Specialists are frequently in demand, and usually compensated accordingly. Those with the ability to see the bigger picture become writers and artists - most of them starving.

As a society we are moving towards knowing more and more about less and less, until we each know all about nothing.

(Not sure who I stole that quote from).
Yep, that's me! (USAF Retired)

Yep, that's my woman! (USAF Retired)

We're more independant than most folk.

Building our Monolithic Dome.
A good generalist is hard to come by like a good specialist. I guess most people are in between. Generalist need a special kind of focus; antifocus. Generalist also need to focus deep enough to generalise. It seems the best generalist is also the best specialist. Large oceans are also very deep. Is the best specialist also the best generalist?
I had one more thought I'd like to add.

An overly specialized society will have a rigid, and necessarily unfair, class structure. Some specialities (movie acting) are more appealing than others (toilet cleaning) and the rules that govern who gets to specialize in what field are skewed to help some and disadvantage others.

The dream of a less rigidly specialized society is really the dream of a fairer, more egalitarian one.
The point being, Specialization, breeds division and makes elitist of what could be average Joes and Jills.
It'd be great if we could all do all those things, but the fact is that we can't. The totality of human knowledge is just too vast.

Further, much of what we appreciate was created by specialists. My wife has terribly arthritis in both her knees, and our GP can do only so much, and we're off to see a specialist.

Yes, we SHOULD specialize.
"Able to" and "Be worth a damn at" are two differing concepts.
Sit down at that piano, without the intervening 15 years of practice, and your Moonlight Sonata will come a cropper. Similarly, hand-chop that concrete block without the intervening 15 years of martial arts regimen, and just watch what happens. However, we ought to be willing to start a new 15 year apprenticeship in anything, at any time. Heinlein, the writer, imagines much. It's his own particular specialist's curse.
I agree with the quote!
Always! People need to be versatile and adaptable to truly survive.
Those specific things? No, that would be absurd. But, yes, a human ought to be able to do a wide variety of things, and avoid being so arrogant that he or she would decline to learn to do something new.
If Heinlein meant this as written, he was a world class dreamer. I suggest he meant it as an example. In decades past, people were more worldly knowledgeable out of necessity. My parents could never have paid to have anything done, so they learned from their parents to do almost everything for themselves. Heinlein was close to the age of my parents.

My generation & the younger generation were introduced to a new world of technology. Who in the last two decades can even work on their own car?

The question "Should we specialize?" doesn't apply in today's world. It is highly specialized. There is much you can't do on your own house without having permits & hiring "specialists" by law.

People can & do obtain much general knowledge if they simply have the interest. I am saying that so much has become so complicated, there are so many rules & laws in place, the ability to become as worldly as Heinlein wished has been limited.

How many of you can repair just the common items around your modern home? The computer,VCR,DVD,television,microwave,washer,dryer,refrigerator,phone with answering machine & let me again say automobile?

Heinlein's quotation was once obtainable & is still desireable, but considering the few examples mentioned in the previous paragraph are each a world of knowledge in their own right, our quest has become much, much more difficult.

And considering specialization, we haven't even talked about obtaining decent employment.
we should be able to do whatever the fu#@ we want.
I love that quote, and it led me to this site. While I agree with some of what has already been said I wanted to add my own ideas.

I think in life the only true answer is inside the mixture of views. So I can’t support Specialization because I believe there has to be a general understanding of our combined human knowledge that we’ve struggle to carry with us through the ages. That said, I can’t support only the idea of generalization, because no human has time enough to learn it all even if they had the capacity to understand it. So we all do better in our own lives as we find areas of interest and talent that serve us well in life.

Nature though shows us best that the mixture of strengths and weaknesses with abit of chance thrown in is the best equation. So I say a mixture of great minds with the abilities of those around them is our own greatest strength. Those who can see the bigger picture are the best to lead us forward for they are able to understand the larger view of the knowledge humans have struggled to carry with them through time. Though our own specialization and knowledge of the details is truly what enables their greater visions to be accomplished. That is the way of all beings in nature I believe, even for us. Now whether those leaders focus that knowledge for better or worse is a whole new discussion. I just believe it is the two views of focus that make up the whole.
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