The Incentive to Be a Generalist

Photo by Anna Mircea on Unsplash

I serve in higher education, where most of the people around me know a whole lot about a few things within a narrow field. They are specialists. It is very good to have specialists. It is even better when specialists talk to other specialists across specialities. Occasionally these conversations yield fresh insight that breaks new ground, all because of a profound connection.

Yet, generalists can be helpful, too.

Last week I heard someone bemoan the lack of generalists in the academy, people publishing in multiple fields across multiple disciplines, offering grand theories of everything in the study of politics, economics, and social science. This same pundit said scholars who were generalists did exist in a previous age (a few decades ago), but cannot exist in today’s academy.

I’m skeptical about that claim. I think someone who is intellectually curious and prolific enough can roam wherever they would like, though I do agree that the incentives run in the other direction. It is good to have generalists, so long as they talk to specialists and glean enough deep knowledge to then put pieces together in a way that hangs together, that makes sense.

(An aside: I don’t know how much better off we’d be, if at all, if generalists talked to other generalists about generalities, because if that’s all they did, their theories would never become comprehensive nor coherent or deep and detailed enough to ultimately do anyone any good.)

The remark about specialists and generalists did lead me to think about wisdom and where it comes from. Wisdom is not less than abiding by a designated set of moral rules, but certainly it is much more. Wisdom is taking the right course of action in the vast majority of life’s situations where the moral rules do not clearly apply. A wise person may have some specialized knowledge. But the sage goes beyond specialized knowledge, arriving at a general set of principles and practices encompassing a number of different fields of endeavor, even all of life.

I thought of examples of a wise person. This then led me to think of the office of pastor. Then, thinking beyond the pastor, I thought of the congregation, and congregants. A Christian minister, or a Christian congregant, has some specialized knowledge, each according to the areas of mastery. Pastors, hopefully, bring forth wisdom from the Scriptures, and plumbers, hopefully, can correctly install pipe.

But Christians in any field will also possess general knowledge about how the world works, not just specialized knowledge applicable to their profession. The Bible contains a great deal of information about politics, social dynamics, morality and ethics, and more. The Scriptures tell a story that touches on various aspects of what it means to be human, as well as what it means to be in relationship to the divine. If you read the Bible, or regularly hear it preached and taught, you’ll glean a great deal of generalized wisdom about how the world works. And if you are part of a community of wisdom, you’ll talk across specialities and gain a greater overall picture of how human beings can best move forward in view of a comprehensive approach to reality.

As a Christian person, there are incentives to being a generalist. A generalist can connect with a broader range of people and address a broad range of human problems. You don’t let go of your specialities while doing so. You also don’t hoard all of your treasures and keep them to yourself. You share them, not to increase your status, but to serve the community. You build everyone else up in knowledge. You love your neighbor as yourself. You give witness to God, who is the source of all knowledge.

We live in a day and age in which people chafe against grand claims and sweeping narratives. But even the claim that there is no big story, no all-encompassing truth, is itself a story. We may be more comfortable with specialists, because first, few of us are equipped to argue with them. We can live and let live. And second, they have a narrowly defined lane which we may seldom enter.

Generalists are more dangerous. Their ideas challenge us all. It’s why Christian people who tell their story boldly yet humbly have often found themselves getting into trouble.

We need generalists. In some respects, generalists will be shown to be wrong, usually by specialists. But generalists also shift the ground, change the frame, help us to see things we may have missed, help us to arrive at new conceptions that can move us forward.

Let’s continue to equip and encourage specialists. But let’s have more generalists.