In Praise of Generalists

We live in the age of specialists who are often given a greater status than generalists. They may train in their specialty for years, becoming the experts we turn to for specific knowledge and information. Specialization begins early. We’ve broken down our subject categories from as early as Kindergarten, and honed those categories into tiny and discreet topics by college.

There is much to be gained in learning something in depth. I don’t want an orthopedist doing eye surgery on me, and I’d like to consult a climatologist about the path of a hurricane rather than a biologist.

The problem lies when we have trained so exclusively in our specialty that we are largely incapable of considering and connecting the many related pieces of information to a larger whole. The big picture matters, and having educated generalists who can move fluidly between fields and subjects, linking the various “hard” sciences with social sciences and the arts and humanities (especially ethics), is crucial for wise choicemaking and system-changing.

While I understand the impulse for specialization, whether in the sciences or as an activist, too little information can ultimately cause us to see things less clearly, make unwise decisions, and come to too narrow conclusions. Being a Renaissance woman or man in today’s world is uncommon, yet bringing a bit of Renaissance breadth would help us all.

As a comprehensive humane educator and the creator of the first graduate programs in comprehensive humane education, I’ve struggled with the challenge of educating our students well on topics as seemingly disparate as education philosophy and practice, environmental ethics, human rights, animal protection, and the overarching topics of culture and change that include economic globalization, social psychology, ethics, and belief-systems. Choosing eight books each for five core content courses (along with films and articles) means that our graduate students may only read 40 books covering these topics before moving on to their thesis. One could easily read 40 books on education or human rights alone. And so while I worry a bit that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, my hope is that by making connections between these issues and embarking on the lifelong learning process involved in being a generalist (which humane educators must be), we will humbly keep pursuing new knowledge and new connections. (I know that I do, reading about 100 books each year.) With this knowledge base, humane educators have the capacity to draw links and “hyphens” between topics and issues and subjects to help learners expand their own thinking and develop their skills as broad-minded solutionaries, whether they too become generalists, or, like most people, specialists. But even if they follow the common path toward specialization, they will bring with them a generalist’s approach from the humane educators who’ve taught them.

For a humane world,

Zoe Weil, President, Institute for Humane Education
Author of Most Good, Least Harm, Above All, Be Kind, and The Power and Promise of Humane Education
My TEDx talk: “The World Becomes What You Teach"

Image courtesy of MAMJODH via Creative Commons.

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