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The Limits of Specialization

By Oliver DeMille

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.” -Robert A. Heinlein

What’s Wrong with Dependency?

I once shared this Heinlein quote with a class and asked the students what they thought of it.

They liked the idea that we are all more capable than we usually let on.

They felt the overall idea was liberating: We don’t have to be (in fact, we probably shouldn’t be) so dependent on experts in so many areas of modern life.

This sparked a heated and enjoyable discussion.

But the thing which surprised me is how many students found the references to “butchering a hog” and “pitching manure” so very crass and disturbing.

They thought the quote would have been much better if it had just left out such “degrading” phrases.

Everything else on the list made sense to them.

This conversation left me somehow deeply concerned about our national future.

Few things are taboo in our society, but the very idea of what a century ago was daily farm work, the very mention of such things, is disturbing to many of today’s youth.

Most of the young people found the thought of butchering their own meat or preparing the land for planting with manure downright revolting.

Ironically, only a few of the students were vegetarians and these few were, as a group, less disturbed than the others—the farm projects at least felt “natural” to them.

If we are so specialized that the most basic acts of food preparation revolt our youth, the future is bound to be…interesting.

I’m not sure what it means, but I’m pretty clear that this development isn’t good for freedom.

One of my brothers, a farmer, invited a youth group from the local church to tour his farm and experience farm life. After working on the farm, he had them eat eggs they had gathered and drink milk they had milked from the cows.

One young man refused to drink the milk, though he admitted that he drank milk daily at home.

“But it comes from the same place,” my brother said.

“No, the milk at the store doesn’t come out of any cow,” the boy assured him.

“Yes, it does,” my brother told him. Seeing that the young man was unconvinced, my brother added, “Really.”

The boy laughed, refusing to be duped by my brother’s obvious prank.

“No way,” the boy said. “The milk I drink every day doesn’t come from a cow.”

Amazed by the conversation, and after clarifying that the boy was not drinking soy or rice milk but really believed in some alternative source of dairy milk, my brother asked the young man, “Well, then, where does milk come from if not from a cow?”

“I’m not sure,” the teenager confidently replied, “but they have ways.”

Who are the famous “They”?

They have ways! “They,” the ever elusive and omnipresent they, have ways—to do anything we need to take care of us.

This may in fact be one of the most profound statements made in modern times, and it was made by an unwitting boy who just “knew” that the world’s experts would take care of whatever he needed.

Certainly specialization and expertise has done much good for the world, but in some ways it appears to have gone too far. The impact on freedom cannot be positive.

Our educational system generally teaches us to accept authority and the “right answers” provided by others.

But real education prepares us to identify and analyze problems, ask questions and figure out the answers for ourselves. It teaches us to challenge assumptions and not simply trust that some group of officials and experts out there (“they”) is taking care of everything.

If we are reliant on nameless experts for food, education, mathematics, science, the arts and nearly every other field, it isn’t surprising that we have long depended on political professionals for answers about economics and national challenges.

But unless the regular citizens are well-versed in major national issues and potential solutions they must—like slaves, serfs or the lower classes of history—simply wait for what history considered their “betters” and “superiors” to make decisions for them.

This is not the American tradition, and freedom simply cannot last in such a society.

Science Weighs In

Nobel Prize winner Robert B. Laughlin wrote:

“There are two conflicting impulses of the human mind—one to simplify a thing to its essentials, the other to see through the essentials to the greater implications.”

The first dominates science, the second technology and business, and a third human impulse—to deeply feel things beyond the ability of the mind to fully comprehend—is the guiding principle of art and spirituality.

Extreme specialization too often relies solely on narrowly-applied science, but true human progress comes from a combination of the scientific, technological and artistic-spiritual impulses. As Laughlin said,

“The search for new things always looks like a lost cause until one makes a discovery.  If it were obvious what was there, one would not have to look for it.”

Indeed initiative, innovation and ingenuity are essential ingredients of a free society—and of the education of a free people.

Specialization naturally allows people to more deeply explore the potentials of their expertise, which is helpful both to innovation and societal progress.

But when specialization reaches the point that it begins to adopt attitudes of undue certainty, arrogance, superiority and/or special privilege, and when the people think it should be so, it has moved beyond its usefulness and turned harmful.

Plato worried that when a person becomes too expert in one area, he starts to believe he is equally wise in all areas. 

This is the danger of any elitist or dominant class in society—whether upper-class status is inherited or obtained by merit. The wisdom of the masses avoids such smug myopia, by synergizing the varying expertise of a wide cross-section of the nation.

This is why a democratic society has more potential than a monarchical or aristocratic culture. But the people must take initiative, they must drive innovation and rise to needed levels of ingenuity, resiliency and tenacity.

We are experiencing a war between two cultures. One believes in “reality as it is currently defined,” the other in “possibility and opportunity.”

The reality view can be summed up in the following words of Stephen Hawking:

“We understand the laws of chemistry and most people do not feel there’s any mystery in that.” Or, as a participant in a seminar where I once spoke said, “The hard sciences have hard rules, and the best policy is not to question them.”

The possibility and opportunity culture might be best understood in the following words of Laughlin:

“The transition to the age of Emergence brings an end to the myth of the absolute power of mathematics….[O]nce science becomes political it is indistinguishable from state religion….We live not at the end of discovery but at the end of Reductionism, a time in which the false ideology of human mastery of all things through microscopics is being swept away by events and reason.”

In other words, innovative thinking is the catalyst of scientific, and other, progress.9 Science progresses specifically by questioning things.

The Specialty of Freedom

Innovation is always needed for progress to occur, even in the hardest of sciences and in all arenas of life.

Indeed, at times the innovation of “getting back to the basics” is both an extreme shock to the system and also the exact improvement which is needed to turn things around.

Specialization has its place, but when it becomes a deterrent to creative or independent thinking, or to commonsensical thinking among non-specialists, it is time to look past expertise and trust the wisdom of the people—at least in political concerns.

The American framers purposely gave each citizen one vote—the same vote for a farmer and a store owner as for a professor, journalist, political expert, billionaire or prize-winning economist.

This created the most free and prosperous society in history, and such opportunity is yet ahead for us if we allow specialization and expertise while still trusting in the wisdom of the people.

We can also, on a personal level, work hard to increase our own wisdom, knowledge and understanding. Only a nation of citizen-readers and social leaders can remain free.

Specialization and expertise have their place in good society, and the people do not become dependent on them if they want to remain free.

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Oliver DeMille is the founder and former president of George Wythe University, a co-founder of the Center for Social Leadership, and a co-creator of TJEd Online.

He is the author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, and The Coming Aristocracy: Education & the Future of Freedom.

Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.

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The Limits of Specialization