Sunday, November 14, 2010

Specialization is for Insects

Adam drew my attention to this interesting quote from Robert Heinlein, author of one of his favorite books, Starship Troopers.

"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, 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, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."

Well, how'd you do?  I'm pretty sure I could do just about all of those except butcher a hog, set a bone, and program a computer.  And it's possible I could butcher a hog or set a bone, if my life depended on it; I just don't know for sure. But program a computer? No way :) Adam was rather surprised to find that I took a whole class in college (in 1981) on computer programming. Stunning, I know.

Why do we equate specialization with intelligence? If a high school senior tells us that he's going to a liberal arts college, we think, "Oh, that's nice."  But if he tells us he's already specializing, focusing only on his great gift -- attending the State School of the Arts in oil painting or vocal performance -- then we are amazed, and fawning, and tell him how wonderful he is. Surely the student who is willing to challenge himself in a variety of areas, many of which will not be his strong suit, is more to be commended. He will not suffer as much with that arrogance of youth that thinks, "Because I know all there is to know on topic X, I may also transfer that knowledge to other areas about which I know nothing, making ridiculous assumptions in conversations that will embarrass me, thankfully without my realizing it." I remember being that youth.

Oh, and I'm as yet uncertain that I will be able to die gallantly. Perhaps none of us can know that until the need arises.

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