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
Leaving Ortega, Shrödinger continues:
A little later, Schrödinger emphazises that each lecturer should possess:
Schrödinger closes his discussion of the specialist-generalist dilemma with the following words: [(147), p. 112]: