Essay 15: Simplistic Critiques of Specialization Are Inadequate

There have been many critiques of specialization and the deepest ones involve the rise of the nihilistic techno-virtuosos of evil such as the Nazis who could make the transition from throughput of steel to throughput of corpses in death factories without a moment’s hesitation. One senses that “rationality” has here gone off the rails.

Husserl (died in 1938) observes that reason has become overspecialized, unilateral and instrumentalized, resulting in “a one-sided rationality that can become an evil. The sickness of Europe in 1935 thus cannot be isolated geographically or politically, the philosopher suggests.

At stake is a sickness of reason itself.” (quoted in The Enlightenment Past, Daniel Brewer, Cambridge University Press, 2011, page 202)

Adorno and Horkheimer in their classic social critique, Dialectic of Enlightenment published in 1944 argue that the whole Enlightenment project of rationality contains the seeds of 20th century irrationality epitomized by Nazi “experts” who became “technicians of evil.”

We have to tread carefully in this minefield because of a warning by Herman Melville when he says: “I like thinkers who can dive deeply before they soar.”  But how would one “dive deeply” without specializing. A field is also called a “discipline” or a “concentration” and those words tell you there’s something defensible about specializing since being a “featherdusting” dilettante cannot be the only alternative for that would be a “Hobson’s Choice” where both choices are bad or incomplete or unattractive.

The message of this educational remediation book you are reading is not that specialization is ipso facto bad but rather that the additional “skill” of also circumnavigating what life is and what knowledge is gives the student an evolving sense of overview, where all dimensions have been included, including his own existence.

Without this, one falls into the trapdoor expressed in the famous essay of William James “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” due to background and specialization “blinders.” Diplomas and careers aside, education’s purpose must be to come to grips with this Willliam James warning (i.e., you could “stumble” through your entire life without seeing anything larger than your training). You could become what they describe in German a bit harshly as a “Fachidiot” (a “specialist fool”).

Specialization, by itself, is not the problem even with the Husserl, Adorno and Horkheimer strictures. It’s rather the Jamesian “blindness in human beings” that’s the problem. 

Simplistic attacks on educational specialization as such don’t get at the profounder problem. The same William James talks about the Ph. D. “educational marathon” as “the Ph. D. octopus.” We do get an intuitive sense of what James is getting at while we do want to balance this with the Herman Melville admonition about “diving deeply before you soar.”

There are educational paradoxes here and we propose to handle them by “completeness excursions and exercises” which are the theme of this book.