The Limits of Generalism
Swarthmore College’s Timothy Burke shares with us his frustration of being a generalist at a highly technical and very specialized technology conference. His experience, he says, showed him the limits of generalism. One point he explains is how close one can be conceptually to a particular topic and contribute insights to experts in that field without being so knowledgeable of that specialty as to participate in original research.
It almost seems to me that a good generalist ought to combine an overall curiosity and fluency in the generality of knowledge with a structured search of the possibility space of the intellectual neighborhoods which are just far away enough from their specializations to return novel possibilities and angles of attack but just close enough that those neighborhoods are potentially accessible with a reasonable amount of scholarly labor. To think about generalism in this way is to realize that different generalists are not going to end up in the same place. Their mutual engagements or conversations will have to happen in places of accidental overlap, because the concentric circles of one’s own generalist competency are going to differ because they originate out of different initial specializations.
Another point he makes is the ease at which one can move from specialist to generalist relative to moving in the other direction.
I repeatedly extoll the virtues of generalism, but it cannot do everything. The sinking feeling I repeatedly had during the conference was knowing that to even get to the point where I grasped the substantive difference between different algorithms or formalisms proposed by many of the researchers at this conference, where I could meaningfully evaluate which were innovative and important, and which were less attractive, would take me years of basic study: study in mathematics, study in computer science, study in economics, areas where I’ve never been particularly gifted or competent at any point in my life. To get from understanding to actually doing or teaching would be years more from there, if ever.