Issue #20 ‘Elephant’ has arrived, you can buy a copy from our online store or subscribe now. Available April 29…
Sometime over the last hundred years, we lost sight of the idea that the whole is more than the sum of the parts. Shifting our gaze, we began to focus instead on the parts that make up the whole, then again on
the parts that make up those parts, spiralling down and down, trying to approach the core of the matter. We have, as a result, become a specialist people. We concern ourselves now with building deep knowledge in narrow channels, knowing that specialists in other fields are doing exactly the same thing. Taken together, these deep, narrow channels of knowledge represent humanity’s advances on unknown frontiers.
We did this in part because what we know about almost everything ballooned out of all proportion in the 20th century. Specialisation became a solution to too much information. Before the big medical advances of the 1950s and ‘60s, doctors-in-training in America were able to learn the entirety of the field in just a few years – because there simply wasn’t that much to know. In 1923, 11 per cent of American medical doctors were specialists. By 1989, over 70 per cent were.
In law, the pyramid structure of most law firms that results in a few partners at the top and lots of junior associates at the bottom also contributed to specialisation. In order to promote juniors and keep profits up at the partner level, law firms had to grow. As they grew, they specialised. But a specialist lawyer was the opposite of the ideal lawyer of a hundred years earlier, when being a lawyer meant aspiring to be a lawyer-statesman like Abraham Lincoln. That ideal, says legal scholar Anthony Kronman, represented the idea that a good lawyer didn’t just know the law, but was also a particular kind of person – someone of good judgment and wise character, both of which were acquired and developed through wide experience. But breadth of experience is what disappears when lawyers specialise, seeing the same type of case over and over again. The new professional ideal of the lawyer, Kronman says, is someone “who cares about nothing but work and is prepared to sacrifice all of his or her personal energies to it, regardless of how narrow and dull the work becomes”.
When we think of a Renaissance man (and the term typically references men; Renaissance women were relegated to sewing straight seams in the background, with a few notable exceptions), we imagine someone well-rounded, someone with wide interests.
Leonardo da Vinci was such a man. Brilliantly eclectic in art, music, math, anatomy, geology, astronomy, map-making, botany, and history, among other things, he was anything but a specialist. We could instead think of him as a generalist – someone interested in knowledge across fields, in breadth, not depth.
Hundreds of years later, 20th century science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein also supported human eclecticism, saying, “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, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialisation is for insects”. But in the 21st century, this idea seems anachronistic, having, as we do, multiple human beings who specialise in each of these things – including in the specialisation of insects.
Today, making forays into many areas is construed as having a lack of focus. There’s simply too much information to know in any one discipline to make a meaningful contribution in more than one or two of
them. Divergent expertise has become a contradiction in terms. To be an expert is to be someone who knows a lot about something in particular.
Naturally, specialisation has its place. Choose a wine from a certain terroir or have a knee surgeon address your knee problem and you’ll appreciate those who know what there is to know about a thing. The benefits are immense, and we’ve rewarded people accordingly. Specialists earn their expertise through credentials like advanced degrees, then enjoy more prestige, status, and earning power as a result.
But an entire culture focused on specialisation has some serious limitations. We don’t just lose sight of the whole. We lose our sense that a whole even exists. It’s now possible to spend an entire career in a sliver of a single discipline without knowing what other specialists in the field are doing – never mind be aware of what’s going on in unrelated fields. And as the credentials of specialisation become the norm, we end up paying less attention and giving less value to the knowledge we develop through living life itself.
Think of your own experience.
Maybe you’ve been in and out of relationships, spent some years in school, travelled to other countries, worked a few jobs, lived in different cities, raised children, developed friendships, nurtured hobbies and interests. The informal knowledge that results in what we once called experience or wisdom can be just as valuable as formal education, but it’s certainly harder for other people to assess. You may have lived, but what degrees do you have?
That assessment problem, said economist Tibor Scitovsky, makes us underestimate the monetary value of generalism, which in turn gives it lower prestige. The breadth of knowledge demanded by generalism (remember da Vinci) also makes it impossible to determine what credentials would even count as a qualification. “Broad knowledge, long experience, good judgement, and wisdom, however important, can almost never be documented,” Scitovsky said. “Many generalists are professionals without credentials.” Economist Stephen Marglin further suggested that when we deny the knowledge we gain through life experience, we deny community, because that’s where our experience is transmitted, passed from parent to child, friend to friend, and neighbour to neighbour.
With our cultural focus on specialisation, we inevitably make decisions differently. We can only take what we know about into account when we’re trying to figure out what to do. Where specialisation is about knowing every last aspect of the tree you’re standing in front of, generalism is about stepping back to see more of the forest. The danger of generalism is cognitive overload. Too much information makes it hard to think critically and conceptually. But the danger of specialisation is that if you step away from your tree, you’ll be completely lost.
The future, as we know it, is uncertain. When you find yourself having to survive in the wilderness, it helps to have more than one way to make fire and one match in your back pocket. Generalism lets us make more connections, assess more implications, and understand a wider range of probable outcomes. It allows us to be more creative and to cope with the unknown more creatively.
Da Vinci, like us, lived in uncertain times. His contribution to our present and our future is representative of what we need now: the contemporary Renaissance man and woman, able to gaze both at the stars and the earth on which our feet are planted.
From the ‘Mona Lisa’ edition of Womankind – you can buy a copy from our online store.