How many specialists does it take to change a lightbulb?

Every now and then, perhaps with Hegelian predictability, there is a swing in academia toward the holistic approach, toward systems theory, if you will. In this anti-atomistic, anti-reductionist view, the essence is the process, not the structure; what’s important is not so much the thing, but the relationship between the thing and other things. I think of Fritjof Capra’s work of fifteen years ago, The Turning Point, and I wonder if perhaps quantum physics will provide the necessary weight once and for all for critical mass so the pendulum will stop, making the atomistic view history.

Given this, it’s too bad people think ‘jack of all, master of none’; it’s too bad generalist degrees (the Bachelor of Liberal Arts, the Bachelor of Liberal Sciences) are almost dismissed, while the only ones that seem to ‘count’ are the specialist degrees (a B.A. or a B.Sc. with a concentration in Some One Thing) – and the more specialist, the better (a Ph.D. in Some One Thing). The value should be on generalist degrees, more specifically, on interdisciplinary degrees, for only interdisciplinary studies focus on the interdependence of things.

One reason, perhaps, for reluctance to make this paradigm shift is that ‘dependence’, as in ‘the interdependence of things’, has a bad name – it’s thought to be weak. I think that’s why communitarianism, with its emphasis on connectedness, isn’t exactly usurping Rawls and company (including grandfather Kant). The concept of gestalt provides one way around this: the sum can be greater than its parts. Linguistics provides another: let’s call it ‘interactive’ rather than ‘interdependent’.

And perhaps things are moving in this ‘inter’ direction. I just came across a book titled Conceptual Foundations for Multidisciplinary Thinking. Now, multidisciplinary is not quite the same as interdisciplinary, but it’s a good start. As is the development of new fields such as biochemistry and Women’s Studies, which are multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary respectively. And several years ago, Concordia University in Montreal published an interdisciplinary graduate journal, undisciplined; according to a library search, it was the only one of its kind, but now I see as well Dianoia (an interdisciplinary journal published by the Center for Interdisciplinary Research in the Liberal Arts at Augustana University College in Alberta). Furthermore, while Concordia is currently the only university in Canada to have an Interdisciplinary Ph.D. program, I believe other universities are taking steps in the same direction; the University of Western Ontario just announced a new program, The Scholar’s Elective Program, which allows high GPA students to custom-design their programs, an option which leads to increased interdisciplinary studies.

Of course part of the reason for the evolution of specialization is the quantity of information: one simply can’t stay at the cutting edge in more than one area. This is true, but if everyone’s at their own section of the edge, who’s supervising the cutting? Are we going to allow our pattern to be one of chance? We need multi/interdisciplinary people, meta-people, to help put the pieces together. Philosophers, trained to examine conceptual foundations, are especially suited for this task; the plethora of ‘philosophy of X’ courses supports this. A philosophy of science course, for example, deals with the basis (not the basics) of science.

And I wonder if the drive to specialization hasn’t become self-defeating. Knowledge is not power; it’s knowing what to do with knowledge that’s important; and it’s knowing what knowledge you want or need that’s important. (Today’s internet surfers remind me of the compulsive kids who used to read the encyclopedia.) I am repeatedly surprised to discover just how much of how many university courses never get past the knowledge/comprehension level, to use Bloom’s taxonomy. They can’t – because there’s so much knowledge (if one is to specialize) to cover. True, many (mostly the Sciences) also get into application; and some (usually the Humanities) venture into interpretation and evaluation; but very few (almost Philosophy alone) has as its focus analysis and synthesis.

The value of a generalist approach, specifically of an interdisciplinary approach, is not just that it’s appropriate to the nature of things – it’s appropriate to the nature of the things’ problems. Problems don’t respect disciplinary boundaries; rather they go outside the lines, they leak from one field (supposing they even start in one field) into another and often still another, making the colours run together and leaving a trail of grey areas.

Solutions seem to depend then on an interdisciplinary approach. Economic solutions often fail because they haven’t accounted for the psychology of the involved people; environmental solutions fail when they don’t recognize and incorporate the politics involved; social solutions can fail simply because the architecture, the design of the society’s city, wasn’t taken into account. The list goes on.

So who are you going to call? Specialist-busters: interdisciplinary generalists.

(Either that or an interdisciplinary committee of specialists, with no egos and excellent communication skills – that can change the damn light bulb.)


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