The Knowledge Management Research Group

Specialist/generalist pattern

Interpretation: This is the dilemma facing every single individual: Am I going to ‘dig deeper and deeper' - learning more and more about less and less, or am I going to ‘look wider and wider' - learning less and less about more and more. In the first case, I end up as a specialist: knowing everything about nothing - and in the second as a generalist: knowing nothing about everything. As a specialist, I have become a solution looking for a problem (= where can I apply my knowledge), while as a generalist, I have become a problem looking for a solution (= I see what's wrong, but not what can be done about it)..

Background: An important aspect of the quality of higher education is the inherent tension between the specialist and the generalist perspective. Reading some of the classical ‘gems' from the science-literature of about a century ago, one is bound to be struck by the ‘holistic ambitions' to comprehend the world in its entirety that still existed among the leading scientific thinkers of the late nineteenth century.

But then, something amazing happened - something that fundamentally changed everything. Around the turn of the century, there was a sudden ‘explosion of abstraction' - a kind of mental supernova - which had an enormous impact that is still being felt throughout our entire culture. To mention just a few of its many consequences, mathematics was catapulted into new conceptual dimensions, where it remained in order to explore a multitude of new and exiting structures. New fields popped up like mushrooms, resulting in such linguistic combinations as ‘point-set topology', ‘functional analysis' or ‘algebraic geometry', to name but a few of the many ‘new brands' of mathematics that were invented.

In physics, the effects of the abstraction-supernova included the destruction of the classical (newtonian) world-view with its God-given deterministic laws, both in the large - by relativity theory - and in the small - by quantum theory. In this mind-boggling process, the old deterministic God has been ‘randomized' and turned into a kind of ‘hedging expert' - who is running the world by ‘betting on averages', and who cannot even keep separate track of space and time! “God doesn't play dice with the universe“ echoes the famous words of Einstein - as a remainder of the old deterministic paradigm. But today it is ‘Order out of Chaos', and ‘Random Rules' - the dice games are played everywhere from the sub-atomic level up to the ‘bingo-lotto' numbered particles that bounce around on our TV-screens!

Another effect of the ‘abstract explosion' a century ago has been to increase scientific activities by several orders of magnitude. This ‘knowledge-explosion' is the cause of the present ‘age of specialization'. Today it is impossible for any single mind to even begin to comprehend the totality of what is going on - in order to obtain some kind of scientifically based ‘world-view' in the sense of the thinkers of a hundred years ago. Instead, we have to content ourselves with much more humble ambitions in our understanding of the human condition.
Unfortunately, this age of specialization has fostered an attitude where the attempts of interdisciplinary understanding have been largely abandoned - giving way to the opposite attitude, the well-known way of the specialist. In one of his philosofical essays Science and Humanism, Erwin Schrödinger discusses, among other things, the problems of specialization. He refers the reader to an article of the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, called La barbarie del ‘especialismo', where he paints the picture of the specialized scientist as the typical representative of the brute ignorant rabble - the hombre masa (mass-man) - who endangers the survival of true civilization. In the translation of Schrödinger [(147), p.110], Ortega writes

He is a person who, of all the things that a truly educated person ought to know of, is familiar only with one particular science, nay even of this science only that small portion is known to him in which he himself is engaged in research. He reaches the point where he proclaims it a virtue not to take any notice of all that remains outside the narrow domain he himself cultivates, and denounces as dilettantist the curiosity that aims at the synthesis of all knowledge.
It comes to pass that he, secluded in the narrowness of his field of vision, actually succeeds in discovering new facts and in promoting his science (which he hardly knows) and promoting along with it the integrated human thought - which he with full determination ignores. How has anything like this been possible, and how does it continue to be possible? For we must strongly underline the inordinateness of this undeniable fact: experimental science has been advanced to a considerable extent by the work of fabulously mediocre and even less than mediocre persons.

Leaving Ortega, Shrödinger continues:

I shall not continue the quotation, but I strongly recommend you to get hold of the book and continue for yourself. In the twenty-odd years that have passed since its first publication, I have noticed very promising traces of opposition to the deplorable state of affairs denounced by Ortega. Not that we can avoid specialization altogether; that is impossible if we want to get on. Yet the awareness that specialization is not a virtue but an unavoidable evil is gaining ground, the awareness that all specialized research has real value only in the context of the integrated totality of knowledge. The voices become fainter and fainter that accuse a man of dilettantism who dares to think and speak and write on topics that require more than the special training for which he is ‘licenced' or ‘qualified'. And any loud barking at such attempts comes from very special quarters of two types - either very scientific or very unscientific quarters - and the reasons for the barking are in both cases translucent.

A little later, Schrödinger emphazises that each lecturer should possess:

The ability to see the limits of his subject matter. In his teaching to make the students aware of these limits, and to show them that beyond these limits forces come into play which are no longer entirely rational, but arise out of life and human society itself.

Schrödinger closes his discussion of the specialist-generalist dilemma with the following words: [(147), p. 112]:

Never lose sight of the role that your particular subject has within the great performance of the tragi-comedy of human life; keep in touch with life - not so much with practical life as with the ideal background of life, which is ever so much more important; and, Keep life in touch with you. If you cannot - in the long run - tell everyone what you have been doing, your doing has been worthless.
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