Highly Specialized

In the spirit of sharing what went before and hoping that the topic is still relevant I post here a previous effort from many, many years ago.

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 even though I am downright compulsive about finishing books I have started 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. Much 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 — like those artists who place a urinal in the museum on the grounds that it is “art.” 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 60 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 someone convinces them that they can find work in that field when they graduate — or they have decided going in that they will become physicians or CPAs and they stay on track for their entire 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. From the faculty’s perspective, it’s all about protecting their turf. The student is victim though she doesn’t know it.

And the rest of us 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.

“My” Truth

In a comment she made to a post I wrote about the nature of truth and falsity, Sha’Tara made the following remark: “In my world there is no truth whatever unless it is ‘my’ truth. . . “ I dismissed this claim as “indefensible,” which was a bit flippant. It deserves closer examination, though in the end I will try to show why it is indefensible. In effect the position is what has been called “solipsism,” and it has been around since humans began to think about truth and falsehood. The position rests on the assurance that I am the only one; I alone know about the “world” which is regarded as “real.” Truth, which is my personal fiction, is mine and mine alone.

As I noted in my comment to Sha’Tara, the claim “there is no truth” also claims to be true and this paradox is the key to the dismissal of the position. At best the claim itself is a half-truth. Some truths are mine while most have nothing whatever to do with me. To be sure, we all look at the world differently; each of us brings with us a large suitcase full of bias, prejudice and, at the very least, individual perspective. No question. But we bring this large piece of luggage to a world we share with others who also bring their own luggage. And we try to make sense of it, to make claims that can withstand criticism and which seem evidential. The evidence is itself available to others and can be examined and verified or rejected as the case warrants.

But in the end, claims from the axioms of Euclid (“Things equal to the same thing are equal to one another”) to the claims of the scientist (“For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”) to the claims of the historian (“Caesar crossed the Rubicon”) can be verified. They are true because there is considerable intuitive, mathematical, historical, or sensory evidence to support them. They are not “my” truth: they are “our” truth. If we disagree about the claim that Caesar crossed the Rubicon, for example, we must bring evidence forward that provides an indisputable case against that claim. Indeed, like any claim, this one can be dismissed willy-nilly, because no one holds a gun to the head of anyone else (we would hope), but the dismissal is pure whimsy. There are no grounds for doing so, except that it makes the person himself or herself feel good. All the evidence supports the above claims in the parentheses.

The chemist/philosopher Michael Polanyi wrote a book in 1958 titled Personal Knowledge in which he argued that the scientist, no matter how exact the science itself, always brings with him or her a personal element. All claims, even the most precise and exact ones supported by mathematics and empirical observation are couched within a context of “personal knowledge.” Nonetheless, Polanyi insists, the knowledge itself is not in question because of the personal element. Polanyi’s goal was to restore science to a place within the body of human studies, to show that it is human knowledge and not so impersonal and somehow clinical that no one would approach it without rubber gloves and no interest whatever in the relationship between scientific truth and the truth in the social sciences and the Humanities. In a word, Polanyi wanted to substitute for the objective, impersonal ideal of scientific detachment an alternative ideal which gives attention to the personal involvement of the knower in all acts of understanding. But, note please, he did not reject all knowledge or all truth out of hand. Indeed, he affirmed the certainty of certain truths, while admitting the elements of personal involvement in the discovery and formulation of those truths.

The point of all this philosophical rambling is to show that truth is in a sense “mine,” but as truth it is there for anyone else. I am not all alone (solus ipse). I share a world with others with whom I can agree or disagree but with whom I also share a body of knowledge. I can get on the airplane with confidence that it will take off and land safely — because science tells me it is safe. I can drive my car and it will start and stop when I ask it to. The danger in rejecting truth is that we become open to manipulation by those in power who seek to instill in us a body of half-truths and “false facts” that allows them to realize their political goals. We are susceptible to the demagogue and the politically ambitious. We need to insist that there is truth and knowledge available to all who take the time to search and seek to validate it because if we do not do so we have nothing with which to defend ourselves from clap-trap and political nonsense.

This is why education is so important, especially in an age in which there are people “out there” who would have their way with us, convince us that black is white and that theirs is the only truth when, in fact, the truth belongs to no one. It belongs to all of us.

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.