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.

Essay 10: Towards a Cosmopolitan Re-Education

Education today is still completely parochial and we will now give an example of making education completely cosmopolitan (i.e., based on global “inputs”).

There’s a Japanese critique of the entire Western tradition of technology-and-man defeating nature. We will come to the Japanese critique in a moment. First, we remind the reader of Western ideas of man as conqueror of nature: think of Sophocles’ classic play Antigone where perhaps the most famous choral ode in Greek drama occurs, “Ode to Man” which celebrates man’s techno-rise (our word technology derives from Greek “techne”):

“Humanity has built ships to conquer the seas, crafted plows to tame the earth, bent animals to his will, raised houses to defeat the rain and the snow.”

Nearly everything is about humanity asserting its will over nature.

One finds a restatement of this conquest-of nature theme in fellow Greek dramatist Aeschylus in his great Prometheus Bound, where he criticizes the men of old in their pre-Promethean ignorance:


“They handled all things in bewilderment and confusion. They did not know of building houses with bricks to face the sun; they did not know how to work in wood. They lived like swarming ants in holes in the ground, in the sunless caves of the earth. For them there was no secure token by which to tell winter nor the flowering spring nor the summer with its crops; all their doings were without intelligent calculation until I showed them the rising of the stars, and the settings, hard to observe. And further I discovered to them numbering, pre-eminent among subtle devices, and the combining of letters as a means of remembering all things, the Muses’ mother, skilled in craft.

“It was I who first yoked beasts for them in the yokes and made of those beasts the slaves of trace chain and pack saddle that they might be man’s substitute in the hardest tasks; and I harnessed to the carriage, so that they loved the rein, horses, the crowning pride of the rich man’s luxury. It was I and none other who discovered ships, the sail-driven wagons that the sea buffets. Such were the contrivances that I discovered for men.

“Greatest was this: in the former times if a man fell sick he had no defense against the sickness, neither healing food nor drink, nor unguent; but through the lack of drugs men wasted away, until I showed them the blending of mild simples wherewith they drive out all manner of diseases…It was I who made visible to men’s eyes the flaming signs of the sky that were before dim. So much for these. beneath the earth, man’s hidden blessing, copper, iron, silver, and gold—will anyone claim to have discovered these before I did?

“One brief word will tell the whole story: all arts that mortals have come from Prometheus.”

(Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, University of Chicago Press, Aeschylus II, 1956, pages 155-156)

One can begin to see how “Promethean man” culminates in Francis Bacon’s (died in 1626) admonition to “place Nature on the rack so that man might force her to tell her secrets.” 

Thus, the Western tradition comes close to a war on nature itself.

Now we come to a critique of this from Japan on the other side of the Pacific:

Natsume Sōseki (died in 1916), the greatest writer in modern Japanese literature, has a protagonist in the 1913 classic Kojin (“The Wayfarer”):

“Constant motion and flow is our very fate.”

“Man’s insecurity stems from the advance of science. Never once has science, which never ceases to move forward, allowed us to pause.

From walking to rickshaw, from rickshaw to carriage, from carriage to train, from train to automobile, from there on to the dirigible, further on to the airplane, and further on and on—no matter how far we may go, it won’t let us take a breath. How far it will sweep us along, nobody knows for sure. It is really frightening.”

(Sōseki, The Wayfarer, Tuttle Books, 1967, page 285)

This sense of things that Promethean/Baconian man will place mankind in a runaway train with no brakes or endpoint is a critique that makes us think. The counterargument that we know of no other way out of poverty is “co-valid” and we have a kind of legitimate “argument without end” which cannot be easily dismissed. We cannot really divide the world into proponents of science/technology on the one side and Luddites on the other. That is too simplistic. There are legitimate concerns about de-humanization through modern science and technology in Adorno and Horkheimer, say, who fear a global shipwreck based on this “runaway train with no brakes or endpoint.” The current climate change crisis comes to mind.

Our main point here is not to enter this argument or to take sides but to show the reader how a cosmopolitan “post-parochial” education might look and how this kind of meta-intelligent pedagogy would be deeply “eye-opening” and help the Wittgenstein process where “light dawns gradually over the whole” as we have seen.

Cosmopolitan Re-Education That Includes Movies and Songs

Another dimension of cosmopolitanism in education is the complete assimilation of movies and songs into the analysis (i.e., all-media cosmopolitanism). here’s a movie example that continues the argument between the conquer nature position and de-humanization fears.

Think of the movie Things to Come.

Things to Come is a 1936 movie masterpiece based on an H.G. Wells sociological sci-fi masterpiece.

In the last minutes of the movie, there’s an exchange between “John Cabal” (played by Raymond Massey) who looks at the stars and says, “All or nothing. We must conquer all of it or disappear. No rest for man in general.”

The other man (“Passworthy”) radically differs: “we are such small little creatures and cannot live that way.”

The storyline of this movie:

A global war begins in 1940. This war drags out over many decades until most of the people still alive (mostly those born after the war started) do not even know who started it or why. Nothing is being manufactured at all any more and society has broken down into primitive localized communities. In 1966, a great plague wipes out most of what people are left but small numbers still survive. One day a strange aircraft lands at one of these communities and its pilot tells of an organization which is rebuilding civilization and slowly moving across the world re-civilizing these groups of survivors. Great reconstruction takes place over the next few decades and society is once again great and strong. The world’s population is now living in underground cities. 

In the year 2035, on the eve of man’s first flight to the moon, a popular uprising against progress (which some people claim has caused the wars of the past) gains support and becomes violent.