Specialization vs. Generalization

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What is generalization?

From ancient Greece and Rome up through Medieval times the most respected intellectuals of the time (by our standards) were the writers, poets, artists, philosophers and architects. Their education, as best we can tell, consisted of a very generalized approach with broad primary topics of the Trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy).

The brightest and best minds (arguably of all time) came from this generalized education. Their specialized interests grew from there via their own autodidactic pursuits in which they questioned, discovered and refined their knowledge and wisdom over their lifetime.

The most accomplished came to know a great deal about A LOT (a broad band of knowledge).


What is specialization?

As humanity progressed through the Renaissance, Enlightenment and into the Industrial Revolution our structure of education and work changed as well, particularly in the last 100 to 150 years. We’ve moved away from a more generalized education to one of great specialization – specifically via the implementation and refinement of the college university structure. Today those that are deemed the world’s most educated intellectuals go through a voracious number of years digging deep into the minutiae of their specialization – with extreme focus.

Even within certain already-specialized fields in the hard sciences – – – such as physics, astronomy, biology, etc. we now have numerous sub- and sub-sub-specialties (sub-degrees in the given field) – creating even greater specialization. 

The most accomplished come to know A LOT about relatively little (a narrow band of knowledge).

What's the Upside & Downside of Specialization?

The upside of specialization? We now have scientists that know an incredible amount of detail and minutiae about an extremely focused and small band of knowledge. Scientists know far more now than ever possible about the Nth-degree of anything.

The downside of specialization? These same scientists, unfortunately, have been educated and indoctrinated to not be able to “see the forest for the trees.” They are so far buried in their educated (indoctrinated) specialty that it prevents them from being able to see two critical things:

  1. the broad implications, interactions, and relationships of one specialization’s knowledge to/with another specialization’s knowledge . . . and
  2. they are so egotistically embroiled in their specialization silos that they will never consider critique or input from someone outside that specific silo or those new to the field (who many times see a more vast and larger picture of reality than the specialists could ever comprehend).
Unfortunately for the uber-specialist, according to Thomas Kuhn, those that make most of the revolutionary discoveries in science are typically the very new/unindoctrinatred or sometimes people from outside the specialty.  Those deep into the specialty are neither educated nor conditioned to be looking for new, revolutionary discoveries. Any anomalies which would lead to such new discoveries, are either ignored, culled or suppressed prior to their peer-reviewed “scientific” papers.

So . . . What's the Best Approach?

Both approaches lend great value to the pursuit of ultimate truths and reality.

Perhaps we need BOTH.

However, in order to implement both in the world of academia, it would require a complete restructuring and core approach to science. The specialists would need to cede their egos, status and reputation in the field and pursue some incredible discoveries and theories made by the generalists. As well, the generalists would have to cede their egos to the phenomenal detailed knowledge of the specialists when applicable.

Ultimately it would require all of us frail, stupid, ignorant human beings to admit our limitations and rationally, objectively pursue the evidence – regardless of where it leads.  It would require Intellectual Integrity and a Clinical Attitude Toward Arguments. Not to mention the removal of monetary & political influence ($$$) with regards to outcomes and expectations. Science claims to do that today, but it unequivocally does not.

Imagine the rapid, amazing progress science could make with this type of atmosphere!  A wonderful road to discovery. It won’t happen, but it’s incredible to dream of its realization.


Carpe diem my friends!

Image by Joe from Pixabay via Pixabay License