Over-Specialization

I am reading a history of early Rome that is well done but painstakingly detailed and slow reading. It’s title is Through The Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 A.D. Yes, that’s just the title. The book is by Peter Brown an Emeritus Professor of History at Princeton. Not long ago I was wading through another history book, The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787 by Gordon Wood. I never made it through Wood’s book though I am downrightt compulsive about finishing books I have decided to read. The book is ponderous, provides much more detail than I require, and is not well written. So I gave up on it. The Peter Brown book, on the other hand, exhibits better writing and was recommended by a friend, so I will probably work my way through the 530 pages (with 200 pages of notes and index, which I will skip). It reminds me of the fact that we suffer from over-specialization in this country.

The phenomenon results in books written by professionals in the field for other professionals — I dare say historians would appreciate the details and copious notes in both of these books. I speak here of history, but the same thing can be said of books in other disciplines (reading philosophy is like swimming through glue). Even novels are now written by writers who seem to be writing for other writers, not for the average reader who just wants a good read. The novel has to be clever and in the latest postmodern fashion.

Music is composed that can only be appreciated by professional musicians. For the rest of us it sounds like a cat with its tail caught in the car door. Art has become specialized as well as artists experiment with their media and try to discover new ways to say the same old things. This is not such a bad thing in the plastic arts, since they are more readily appreciated by the unsophisticated viewer and new ways of seeing things can be exciting. The plastic arts may survive the trend toward overspecialization, though there is always the lunatic fringe who create works that can be appreciated only by others on the lunatic fringe. But in so many of the arts sophistication has become the key to appreciation.

In any event, the phenomenon of overspecialization has infiltrated our colleges and universities where there are now specializations within specializations. As Michael Polanyi said 50 years ago, “. . .it is a rare mathematician, we are told, who fully understands more than half a dozen out of fifty papers presented at a mathematical congress.”  And that was then! This has resulted in a hodge-podge undergraduate “education” where students take bits and pieces of this and that until something strikes their fancy (or they have decided going in that they will become physicians or CPAs and they stay on track for their undergraduate years and get trained but not educated). Neither of these alternatives amounts to a coherent education that broadens as well as deepens perspective. But that’s what we seem to be stuck with as the specialists, separated as they are from one another by discipline — and often by geographical location on campus — don’t (can’t?) talk to one another and cannot come to any sort of agreement about what kinds of things make for a defensible undergraduate education. The student is victim though she doesn’t know it.

And the rest of suffer as well when we want to know a bit about the history of humankind and we are faced with ponderous books that are deep in detail and shallow in writing skill and readability. The curious layman (and student) has been forgotten in this age of specialization where walls between schools of thought cannot be conquered even by the most determined climber.

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7 thoughts on “Over-Specialization

  1. The essay by Herman Daly that precedes yours in the December issue of Empirical raises a similarly daunting and troubling point. His piece concludes with the anecdote about the Library of Congress using today’s technology to digitally record and preserve EVERYTHING (!) that appears on TV, YouTube, the radio, Twitter, etc. And then librarians would just store it away, leaving it for historians to decide what is important in all that and what is not. Daly says it’s another example of “how to” questions replacing “what for” questions — logistics instead of critical thinking, stockpiling instead of boiling it down. That does, as you say, leave little room for the curious layman. At some point, someone’s got to be an editor, or a writer who can synthesize wide ranges of information into an easily digestible and coherent book. We’re getting a lot of overspecialization or often simply too much information, multi-volume memoirs, etc. It’s what we journalists used to call “emptying the notebook,” using every quote we got in an interview or at a meeting, etc. Not everyone is Henry Adams or the Durants! Nor is everyone Joe Amato, who can make a very specialized subject like dust into a full and somewhat compelling book.

    We need more blogs by people like you to break down these big treatises, and make some usable sense of them!

  2. Isn’t the definition of an expert “someone who knows more and more about less and less, until they know absolutely all there is to know about nothing?”

    In the “let’s keep everything” mentality, that also goes for today’s books and magazines, where the proofreaders and editors have been sacrificed, and as a result we are forced to wade through gross levels of spelling and grammatical errors, as well as outright falsehoods. And writers, as your above commentator noted, who do the “notebook dump” in hopes of getting a book or article out there.

    I once had a temporary “colleague” at a small paper who would bring in 1500 words for a 1000 word assignment, justifying it by saying the editor could choose what she wanted to use. That happened once, and in the next staff meeting, his replacement was introduced.

  3. Great post and love the comments and replies. Abraham Lincoln needed more time for a short speech for the same reason. I have an editor friend who in a weak moment will let me write an Op-Ed piece. He says we need either 500 or 750 word pieces, but he can get them in the paper easier if they are 500 words. So, that is the mission. To your point Hugh. I do not care for writers who make things complicated needlessly. All the best, BTG

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