On Specialization

I talked briefly in my last post about William Barrett’s 1958 book Irrational Man. I can’t recommend this book highly enough; if you’re interested in Existentialism as a movement or as a philosophy, you must pick it up. It’s the best introduction I’ve read, particularly the section that explains Martin Heidegger’s difficult, obfuscated work. If I’d had Barrett in my corner when Nathan Gilmour and I went through Being and Time last year, Nathan would have seen me stare blankly with my mouth open substantially less often.

Barrett suggests–rightly, of course–that Existentialism is a reaction primarily to two cultural phenomena: rationalism (represented by Hegel for Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and by Logical Positivism for the twentieth-century thinkers) and the increased mechanization of society. This claim is not at all new to me–nor to you, either, I’d imagine–but what Barrett describes as a manifestation of the combination of these factors is.

But first, the history of philosophy. As is known to almost everyone, the term philosophy is the combination of two Greek words and comes out meaning “the love of wisdom.” In our modern world, we are apt to see this definition as a mere etymological oddity, but a glance through the works of Plato will show you the degree to which the term is important and accurate.

When Athens put Socrates to death for “atheism,” I’m not so sure they were wrong. Socrates had traded the religious system of the culture around him for–and yes, this goes against his (falsely) stated claims to humility–for a faith, really a desperate faith, in his ability to use dialectical reason to discover the truths that held the universe together. This Socratic faith seeps out from every line of nearly every dialogue Plato ever wrote. Plato and his mentor seek knowledge because it is a religious matter for them; a hole inside of them demands to be filled.

Back to 1958, and to 2010. The Socratic/Platonic religious quest for truth, Barrett tells us, is “somewhat embarrassing to the contemporary philosopher, who has to justify his existence within the sober community of professional savants and scientists.” (Science itself, of course, was once upon a time both motivated by the same religious search for wisdom and considered a branch of philosophy–but no more.)

Now, the real villain is what you get when you mix one part mechanization with two parts rationalism: academic specialization. “The modern university,” Barrett says, “is as much an expression of the specialization of the age as is the modern factory.” (Hence the term “diploma mill”?) Things, as anybody reading this will know, have only gotten worse since 1958.

Barrett, it must be said, is by no means hasty in his dismissal of academic specialization. He acknowledges that “everything we prize about our modern knowledge, each thing in it that represents an immense stride in certainty and power over what the past called its knowledge, is the result of specialization.” It comes, as I said, from the rationalism of modern science, and it’s clear that it’s a net positive for society as a whole. But what if what’s good for society as a whole is bad for the individual human soul? What if, as Kierkegaard suggests in Fear and Trembling, the individual is improbably, even paradoxically, higher than the universal?

When I was teaching Freshman Composition at the University of Georgia, I was struck from time to time with the realization that I was the only college English teacher many of my students–particularly those in the sciences–would ever have. This made me feel messianic less than it made me anxious. If I believed that the purpose of education was not to train students to be productive members of whatever profession they’d chosen but instead to aid them in becoming that most elusive of animals, the Whole Human Being–and I did and do believe that–how could I possibly get the message across in a single semester? How do you tell someone that society is wrong, that they’re not at college to get stoned, a diploma, and hopefully not pregnant, but rather to receive philosophy–the love of wisdom? What 400 pages of literature can you assign to make a budding accountant or anesthesiologist open a book on her own after you’ve turned in grades?

Of course, the answer is that you can’t do that–only the most gifted of teachers could, and if we’re honest with ourselves, we will admit that the most gifted teachers are unlikely to be found as “teaching assistants” making $14,000 per year at a state school. But the location of the best and the brightest is beside the point; the issue is rather that the university system has been specialized and mechanized to the point where it falls to one person to impart all the knowledge of literature a student will get for his entire life. The issue is that this shouldn’t be. (And lest readers believe that I’m merely an embittered humanities student, I openly acknowledge that I took exactly one science class in college. This, too, is a shame.)

This is a problem without an easy solution, unfortunately. As Barrett noted in 1958, we owe most of the social progress of our civilization to the deep, if narrow, knowledge that specialization brought us. And as Thomas Friedman and others have argued much more recently, if the United States wants to have any hope of maintaining its spot on top of the globe, we need more scientists, mathematicians, and engineers–and we’re not getting that by required Great Books programs.

On the other hand, the implications of the mecha-university and the mecha-society which creates it and is created by it on the human spirit are frightening. I wonder how far off we are from the world depicted in a recent episode of the ABC sitcom The Middle, in which a character goes in for a job interview and realizes to his horror that the company wants to hear him say that his entire life is cleaning septic tanks. A completely mechanized world is a completely specialized world; a completely specialized world demands knowledge of one thing only. To know one thing is in the end to want to know only one thing–and eventually we’re all knee-deep in human waste.

4 thoughts on “On Specialization

  1. I know what you mean: how can you, in one semester, show even a tithe of what you love in literature, much less approach the scope of the discipline itself? It’s not the best solution, but I usually try to select works from a range of eras that discuss the same themes: students may never comprehend the depth and breadth of lit, but they’ve at least seen Eliot, Tennyson, and a nameless Anglo-Saxon at the same table, talking about loneliness and the risks of action and self-revelation.

  2. For Socrates, one could say, the logos was God, no? 🙂

    The good news, insofar as this is good news, is that when I taught ENGL 2310, a non-required class, last spring, I did have in my group not only majors that required the third semester of English but also computer scientists and chemists. There are some who still seek out belles letres, no matter how few they be.

  3. I share your fear for the future, as you know, but forums like these where we can discuss the need for our field(s) make me feel better about the state of things, if only a bit.

    @David – I LOVE the image of writers throughout the ages sitting at the same table and having a conversation. That’s really beautiful, and close to how I feel about the project of Literature as a whole. I may steal it for my own classes (with your permission, of course).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *