Friday, March 04, 2005

Specialization Is For Insects

"The specialist system fails from a personal point of view because a person who can do only one thing can do virtually nothing for himself. In living in a world by his own will and skill, the stupidest peasant or tribesman is more competent than the most intelligent worker or technician or intellectual in a society of specialists."

Wendell Berry
The Unsettling of America
Pg. 23

Specialists are boring people. I have a really hard time having conversations with my non-agrarian friends. They can't talk about anything because they don't know how to do anything. They live such empty and dull lives. When I was growing up I was lucky to be surrounded with country misfits. We were the only teenagers around that were blacksmithing for fun. The only kids that could make hand hewn beams, make syrup, trap and skin a 'coon, make oak split baskets, and run our own whiskey still. If nothing else I want my kids to grow up like that.


At 3/07/2005 10:24 AM, Anonymous Randy Jenkins said...


I am amazed how often your thoughts reflect my own! I offer this quote on specialization by Robert Heinlein:

"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnett, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently and die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."

Of course, Heinlein did not mention the center of all disciplines, christian theology; or man's first occupation, agriculture (agriculture is much more then pitching manure and butchering hogs). Still, it's a fine sentiment and meshes nicely with your thoughts.

At 3/08/2005 11:49 AM, Blogger reformed farmer said...


Its good to know there are others out there that think like me! Scares everyone else I'm sure.

Thanks for the quote, its great.


At 3/10/2005 8:18 AM, Blogger abigail said...

Well, I've griped to John about broad-brush use, so I may as well gripe to you, too. Plus, I think your blog needs more responses from people misinterpreting things, because it enlivens the comments section.

First, let me say that I agree wholeheartedly with your quotes from Berry and Heinlein. The complete specialization of knowledge is an accident waiting to happen. If the key players in any one field of knowledge in America were suddenly unable to perform their tasks for the rest of us, we'd be in a sorry state, and I include all of us in that "we".

You see, even those, like you, who have a laudable amount of "real" knowledge useful for day-to-day life outside the box of abstractions, still have areas of ignorance mixed with their areas of expertise. I've never met the ultimate renaissance man or woman (although if I did, they'd probably be a close embodiment of Heinlein's quote), and I'll probably never have as much knowledge about any one field as I'd like to. Most humans have innate affinities for certain branches of knowledge, and although they can reach beyond those branches to learn as much as they can about everything else, most stick pretty closely with what they enjoy and what they're good at, in part because life imposes time limits on us. (I doubt any of us will have more than 100 or so years to learn...) This is why I'll never sit down and puzzle out mathematical equations during my extra time, and you'll probably never learn to play the bassoon or paint landscapes (correct me if I'm assuming too much). Both of those pursuits, however, add something to life. Math is as necessary to farm life as it is to accounting. Bassoons, well, bassoons are just plain fun, and they're a part of something that's necessary in a completely different way--music.

If the bogeyman aspects of Y2K had materialized, you would have been in fine shape for survival, given your knowledge of land and animals. (John and I would have raided my mother's 50 lb. bags of stored popcorn kernels.) There might have been instances, though, in which you might wish for the presence of a specialist who could knowledgeably treat something better than you could (i.e. a bullet in your cousin-in-law Abigail's side or a dear boy who came down with pneumonia).

As far as your comment that specialists are boring people because they can't do anything and therefore can't talk about anything, I take slight issue. You may have been using hyperbole, but to state unequivocally that specialists are dull conversationalists who don't know how to do *anything* is ridiculous. Many could talk knowledgeably about important things that you and I know little about, and their "empty and dull" lives are anything but, even if they live for work that we can't comprehend or don't find of interest. Many know what we will never know, either because of our lacking brain-power or lacking will-power.

I don't have the disregard for specialists that you seem to (see the first four sentences of your paragraph), and I'm willing to bet there are some specialists who would enthrall you in conversation. If it weren't for specialists throughout time--astronomers, artists, agriculturists, and arithmetists all--we wouldn't have moved beyond the Bronze Age as quickly (and I for one enjoy the amenities that have come since).

At 3/10/2005 9:11 AM, Blogger abigail said...

The Blog Beast cut off the tail end of my comment. Here it is...

What I do have a problem with are societies, like our country and other developed countries, that are shaped around and dependent upon groups of people who are sole caretakers of the sum of their particular branch of knowledge. I'd like the vast majority of citizens to have practical knowledge and survival skills instead of thinking food grows in boxes, with a few specialists and geniuses thrown in for good measure, instead of the other way 'round.

I know that idea's at the heart of your post, and I'm just being a nuisance, but even though I've been known to make sweeping generalizations myself, I still gripe when I see them.

(And after a brief stint as Devil's Advocate, I do think that a lot of specialists would starve if electricity, running water, and long-distance transportation failed.)

p.s. Heinlein's wonderful book Have Spacesuit, Will Travel should be read by all if only for its clear-eyed view of government education.

At 3/11/2005 3:15 AM, Blogger reformed farmer said...


Wow, I'm flattered that someone with as much "fancy book learnin'" as you would take the time to write a 1000 word refutation to my small little post. Perhaps I should have called it Hyper-Specailization. You point out that everyone is good at something....I think we all know that. The question is wether or not we should build a whole culture on the idea of specailization. The whole "doctor" argument is the same one your father used on my some years ago. I think there is a good case for saying that it has been more destructize to the medical world than a help. Specailization has also led to the seperation between work and home, which I will post on later. I must admit your responce reminded me of a Mrs.Newman comment! I do realize that the fact you have been locked up in an apartment for some time, it may be getting to you dear cuz'.


At 3/12/2005 4:11 PM, Blogger abigail said...

“It may be getting to you”…HAH! It’s not getting to me, and to prove it, here are two thousand words to join the first thousand.  Your comment about “fancy book learning” wasn’t lost on me. But, hey, at least I met John at college! (I was also tempted to sign my original response “Rebecca Newman,” but I didn’t for fear of her rightful indignation!)

I wrote, “What I do have a problem with are societies, like our country and other developed countries, that are shaped around and dependent upon groups of people who are sole caretakers of the sum of their particular branch of knowledge.” You responded, “The question is whether or not we should build a whole culture on the idea of specialization.” Same thought, different wording. (Big surprise, I wasted more words to say the same thing.)

And my “doctor argument” wasn’t an argument at all, but a comment, really. Medicine provided an easy way to make my point, but other areas would have worked, too. I agree that there are negative aspects to the hyper-specialization of medicine, as there are in any field that has been broken down to such a degree, but, at the same time, I’m wary about making sweeping statements about hyper-specialization and specialists as a group entire (e.g. they ALL lead dull and boring lives, they ALL have nothing to talk about because they don’t know how to do ANYTHING). Those statements you made prompted my whole response. I’m know you’ve got sound arguments and a logical defense against hyper-specialization and hyper-specialists, but unbalanced comments that don’t address the root trouble won’t do much other than stir a bored-stiff homemaker named Abigail to waste your time with lengthy responses.

And as much as I know that most hyper-specialists couldn’t find their way out of the Big Woods and as much as I see the negative ramifications of the way our society is now ordered, I can’t deny the good that HAS come out of specialization. Granted, it’s the same specialization that has led us to a time when most people aren’t able to live outside of their lit and heated grocery stores. If it weren’t for a specialist working to develop a polio vaccine, though, people who, for sound reasons, choose to not inoculate their children, would face the sickness, paralyzation, and death of many of their offspring through polio, smallpox, diphtheria, etc. Now of course God works for our good and is faithful in whatever He allows—including the death of our children—and He wills life and death in any form at any time. My point is that, because of the work of past specialists, you likely won’t face the loss of either of your precious boys or me the loss of my girls through these diseases. You have the luxury to keep your children naturally un-poked without the attendant risks that they would have faced. Smallpox, particularly, is no longer even a blip on parental radar, but it used to be a real and grave danger, and I’m thankful for its absence even as I agree with the core of your comments. (And we’ve both read up on vaccinations, so you don’t need to dread an off-shooting thousand word comment on this issue…)

And like I said, I know you know all this. You aren’t oblivious to the benefits that we enjoy through the work of specialists; you just think the harm outweighs the good. I’m not trying to point out the obvious because I think you’re ignorant of it; I’m just trying to avoid doing the dishes.

By the way, I look forward to your post on the gap separating home and work. I think that numerous problems spring from that gap, and I’m eager to misinterpret any and all comments you make regarding them!

At 3/12/2005 6:46 PM, Blogger abigail said...

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