So much knowledge, so little
The April/03 article “Clouding the Issue” by Gerald Graff, AB’59, succinctly outlined the specialization vs. generalization debate, but this argument has been raging far more than “half a century.” As Graff himself earlier indicates, William James’s 1903 essay on the subject shows that this dispute is at least a full century old. I suspect that the argument began soon after sufficient knowledge had been accumulated so that one person could not learn it all in a lifetime even if (s)he outlived Methuselah. Certainly, this was well before writing was invented (since once a society could not pass along all its knowledge orally from one generation to another, a strong motivation to develop a written language was born).
But while a written language solves the problem of transferring knowledge to succeeding generations, it only exacerbates the difficulty of having the entire body of accumulated knowledge reside in one “wise one,” no matter his or her life span. Hence the need for each individual to choose to become either a specialist or a generalist. At first glance this would seem to be one of those basic choices that will color all one’s pursuit of knowledge for the remainder of one’s intellectual life. In fact, it can be somewhat of an intellectual logical trap or at best a Hobson’s choice, at least by my favorite definitions: a specialist is someone who knows more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing, while a generalist is one who knows less and less and more and more until she knows nothing about everything.
Perhaps there is something to these old saws: “Everything in moderation, including moderation,” or its equivalent: “Everything is relative, relatively speaking.”
Richard Kastel, MBA’62
Port Ludlow, Washington