Month: April 2013

Intellectual Sin: Overspecialization

My brother comes to me and says, ‘Are you good at science’? And I’m like, ‘I’m an art major. I mix paint. That’s about as scientific as I get.'”

–Random student at the university Snack Shop

She had a point (though it might not have been a great one). A student specializing in art should not be expected to be proficient at biology, physics, or languages. Right? Right.

At some point, making lemonade out of the lemons we’ve been given stopped somewhere short of the grey matter above our shoulders.

In some circles, challenging and stretching one’s mind seems more like an activity for the exceedingly motivated, “driven,” or “smart” folks. If, as an Engineering major, you took a Greek class “just for fun,” you must be fantastically gifted, motivated, or… suicidal. Who would do that to themselves?

Apparently it’s possible to get all the benefits of a liberal arts education without… actually… engaging your mind in liberal arts (convincing Harvard article on the subject here). 

Even among those “driven” enough to go to college, people tend to assume ignorance of any subject outside their area of specialization. At least at my university, the assumption that you only know your specialization underlies many academic discussions.

And it goes for professors as well as students. Though I attend a liberal arts university, I’ve sat in the classes of English faculty members I’ve come to greatly respect and heard them indicate (facetiously) that they can’t really expect us to do basic addition. We’re English majors, after all. Leave the quiz-grading to the accountants.

There’s also an underlying assumption among the college-educated about those who haven’t gone on to pursue a higher education. What about those students with a high-school diploma and nothing else to show for it? Such a waste, they sigh, shaking their heads. They could have gone on to such great things.

We pass grants and bills that make it easier for the underprivileged to go into more debt than they’ll ever be able to repay so they, too, can take advantage of the riches of academia. 

Often, the un-college-educated skilled tradesmen (and women) are far better equipped to deal with the important stuff of everyday life than those of us who have spent several sleep-deprived years with our noses in textbooks. 

With an infrastructure that’s falling apart and  a startling lack of up-and-coming tradespeople, we’re looking at an American future full of indebted individuals who have college degrees but don’t know how to deal with their own stopped-up toilets.

There’s something to be said for generalization–both inside academia and outside of it. The Lord gave us brains capable of far more than analyzing literature (English majors) or painting canvases (as much as I appreciate the value of an MFA).

Here’s to polymaths everywhere. I salute you.

Now go make lemonade, people!