It's good to be a Generalist

Its good to be a Generalist - Rino Breebaart

And here's a link to an earlier article on the theme, in PDF.


  1. This is great food for thought. Thank you for your post.


  2. Nice post.

    The fear of general knowledge is, I think, connected to our fear of modernity. The products of Modernity - rather than the forces of nature - are now the loci of disaster and risk. We have conquered nature, but not modernity. Chernobyl, Mad Cow Disease, and pesticide poisoning, are just a few examples where the temples of modernity have brought problems that outweigh their benefits.

    The unintended risks of modernity are shared by all - even if they are only caused by a few. We all lose from pollution, nuclear meltdown, environmental destruction. Even if we don't pollute, use nuclear power or degrade the environment.

    The sociologist Ulrich Beck labels this phenomena as the 'risk society'.

    For many (particularly in western societies) this means that we are less inclined to believe experts. Scientists, planners, government bureaucrats are seen as the harbingers of unintended problems, not 'development'. In response there has been an explosion of alternative science, knowledge, production, and consumption; the new-age and slow-food movements are two examples of this shift.

    Because many don't trust that the benefits of modernity will outweigh the negatives, it is not surprising then that some are sceptical about climate-change, the development industry, 'big government', nuclear energy, western medicine (i.e. doctors know best) and mobile phone radiation. These symbols of modernity are scary for anyone who doesn't have the specialised knowledge required to understand their actual risk (if this is indeed possible)!

    Perhaps this scepticism (along with the arrival of the internet) has fuelled this grasping for 'generalised knowledge'? If we can't trust the servants of modernity, we'll darn well become little erin brokoviches and take them on at their own well, until it involves brain-surgery, physics, calculus, and anything else we can't learn from wikipedia in a day or so. ;)

  3. whoops...first line should have read: 'our fear of expert knowledge...'

  4. Thanks Joe, and Grant - for bringing some scholarly nous to the discussion! I definitely think it's part of something bigger - the need for a unifying or thematic picture connecting all our knowledge and skills. I was thinking along the lines of a pragmatic ethics or consensus; but it's hard not to fall into the trap of visions and idealism and such. The best result would be something like the basic rules underlying complexity theory - the basic laws of human/cultural/technological interaction.

    But also, thinking of the mad derivatives and profit-via-loss investment structures that don't make sense and caused the GFC, and which even the banks and regulators had no idea of how they function. How can something be given a AAA rating and noone understands the nature of the investment? That is the kinda specialised insulation that's gonna bring the whole system down. And when there's a quiet mass of these hermetic and obscure specialisations working together in the dark, and no oversight or consistency principle, then we're in trouble.

    Now I'm rambling.

    I wanna bring it all back to Renaissance values, man the measure, and reinforce the heart with general education principles.

    Speaking of which, some of the best, most interesting or connecting courses I did at Uni were general ed.



Nice comments are welcome!