What could we do without specialists? Certainly only a fraction of what we have to do, for so much productive activity nowadays requires special training and experience. Besides, isn’t specialization where the money is? So everyone who seeks wealth and success should specialize, right?
Not necessarily. First, not everyone equates success with material wealth. And second, not everyone is cut out to be a specialist. Some people are insatiably curious about many things, and don’t choose to limit their attention to a single field. What they seek is comprehensive understanding of how everything works together. And if some things don’t work well together, their idea of success is figuring out how to resolve the difficulties.
This is indeed fortunate. For, good as they are at what they do, specialists in different fields sometimes end up working at cross-purposes — so we also need big-picture planners and coordinators. However, the complexity of the known world has increased exponentially, so that the time is long past when a “renaissance man” like Leonardo da Vinci could, through personal investigation, learn everything then knowable about the world.
Since it’s no longer possible for any individual mind to amass a working experience of everything, a distillation of others’ cumulative knowledge and experience offers an expedient path to worldly enlightenment. So today, liberal education in arts and sciences makes sense for broadly inquisitive minds. (Note: “Liberal” education doesn’t imply political bias; it just means broad enough to “liberate” one from the tunnel vision engendered by specialization. If it has an innate bias, it’s toward testable ideas reflecting observable reality, and less reliance on unsupported conjecture and myth.)
There’s not only room, but also growing need — in the world and the workplace — for people knowledgeable about the complex interactions among sciences and humanities, the workaday and business worlds, politics and religion, world cultures and traditions, nuances of language, and even the arts. For these are the broadly informed and versatile “go-to” people who can grasp and solve many problems that transcend traditional boundaries.
They study science to learn how nature works. They study history and psychology to understand the interplay of forces affecting civilization for better and for worse. They use philosophy to weigh issues of ethics, justice, freedom, and responsibility. They use evidence and reason to find practical solutions to complex problems. They use language skills to weave all these into a coherent fabric of thought for the benefit of individuals, families, businesses, communities and nations. And they use arts and oratory to energize public spirit.
Some people now say liberal education isn’t cost-effective and should be abandoned. Granted, it isn’t for everyone. Yet ironically, the ability to think globally has become a key “meta-specialty,” particularly sought by principled leaders focused on the long run instead of the fast buck, and on partnering with communities rather than raiding, looting, and leaving town.
So, to those exceptional spirits who love to learn about everything and are contemplating higher education: Don’t rule out liberal arts and sciences. For, unlike many trendy specialties, these are a lifetime investment.
S. A. Joyce of Middletown is one of our regular community contributors.