Rebecca at ProtoScholar has been on a tear of great posts lately. Her musings on being a generalist or specialist struck a special chord with me.
One of the disadvantages I felt coming back to school is that I’m ignorant of a whole body of knowledge (library science, library processes, library history) that I think many of the younger grads around me have already ingested. The more I hear about catalogers, indexers, and archivers, the more I feel I’m missing out on a deeper conversation. Because I’m not a specialist, I have to survive as a generalist.
But. An advantage to being a forty-odder is that I can bring a wider range of associations to bear on certain topics, or at least a perspective that wouldn’t occur to many of my peers, and that can give me an advantage. Many of my oddball interests of the last 20 years are for whatever reason surfacing now and then in my studies, and I’m able to use them in class discussions or papers.
Rebecca says the best scholars are specialists in one area but generalists in others. Certainly, if we’re going to make our careers matter in the few decades left to us, it’s up to us to see the associations our work can have in other areas of life: the community, the family, social institutions, and so on. That may mean specializing in what we study and research, but finding ways we can apply it generally to the world.
I see myself as a jack-of-some-trades and have always withheld part of myself from becoming too specialist, but I think now is a good time for me to explore how deeply I can go into a topic and really own it intellectually.
This reminds me two oddball thoughts, just to show where these ramblings can lead:
- The writer Arnold Bennett once observed, on the issue of free will, that life worked out best for him if he assumed that he alone possessed free will, while everyone around him was predetermined to act as if they couldn’t help themselves. He said it took a lot of stress out of life. So: how would I act differently if I saw everyone around me as specialists but myself as a generalist?
- The psychologist/philosopher William James, in discussing memory, used the analogy of a bowl full of fishing hooks. You could not pick up only one hook, he said, because they were attached to each other such that lifting up one lifted up a cluster. In the same way, memory is associative: the more things you know, the more connections you can make to new knowledge, and so the more you can remember. In a way, that’s how I see generalists and specialists; generalists can call up a cluster of associations, some useful, some not, and it’s this trait that I’m able to call on as a student. We’re highly distractable, us generalists, but it keeps life interesting.
(originally posted in 2007-11-10, updated for micro.blog)