Sunday, May 12, 2013

Reynolds and Schaeffer: Academic Platypus

I was talking with a friend today about possible career paths for an academically inclined 20-something.  Much of that period of life seems to be about coming to terms with the fact that you can't do most of the things you are interested in.  In fact, the thing you end up doing may not even be that which interests you the most but merely that which someone is willing to pay you to do.  For those of us with broad interests and a broad education, it can be a particularly painful season of life.

Some, however, do find a way to reject the enforced narrowness that seems to come with adulthood.  These people make a specialty out of generalizing.  I was trying to explain this and the two people that came to mind first were Francis Schaeffer (the Swiss-Chalet-dwelling guru-apologist) and John-Mark Reynolds (founder of the Torrey Honors Institute and Provost of Houston Baptist University).  Both of these men made careers out of generalizing.  Knowing a little about everything, they focused their considerable powers on drawing connections rather than specializing in a single field.

So much of the Modern Project has focused on the idea of breaking Knowledge into discrete fields and forcing individuals to pick a single field and spend a life time tunneling away at it.  As the "tunnels" have gotten deeper, it has become increasingly difficult to communicate between them.  Both Academia and Industry are beginning to realize the problems this lack of connection cause.  If knowledge is connective, making the unknown known by means of connecting it to the known, then specialization that inhibits connectivity threatens our ability to know.  The acknowledgement of this threat seems to be leading Academia and Industry to call for a revival of the "generalist," the one who coordinates between the "tunnels."

How does this apply to my friend's very practical question?  The call for generalists has gone out, but our society remains deeply structured in a way that caters to the specialist and penalizes the generalist.  Thus, for the trained generalist, the question comes up: will there be a job for me if I refuse to specialize?  Figures like Schaeffer and Reynolds were able to carve out places for themselves by dint of their extraordinary personalities.  It remains to be seen if their disciples can do the same.   

No comments: