It’s no great trick to be trained to do one thing

I spent the first 30 or so years of my life becoming a specialist. It seemed like a good idea at the time, although I should have been suspicious when it took so long. Anyway, I have had to spend the next 30-or-so years trying to undo the damage.

The idea of specialization, as a social system, seems to make sense. The social idea of specialization is that the responsibilities of many different tasks are handled by those who are specifically, and expensively, trained. Complex subjects such as law, medicine, education or engineering should be given over to those who are most skilled and prepared.

However, things that are supposed to make sense don’t always. As Edward Bear, otherwise known as Winnie the Pooh, apparently discovered when he did something odd. Rabbit observed, “I don’t see any sense in that,” to which Pooh replied: “No. There isn’t any. There was going to be when I began it. It’s just that something happened to it along the way.”

Do you ever feel that way, too?

The problem with specialization, as I see it, is that it creates specialists. By definition a specialist is a person who is trained to do just one thing. However, if a person can do only one thing, then what is left for him to do, except that one thing? Physicians are skilled at expensive treatments for diseases they have no skill in preventing. What if we prepare educators who know nothing to teach or communicators who have nothing to say? Like this column, for example.

The specialist knows only one aspect of a matter and cannot take responsibility for failures that might occur due to other considerations. The qualities of workmanship, pride, care, conscience and personal responsibility are diluted because these so often depend on the whole thing, not just one specialized part.

What made me attempt to undo my specialized education was the realization that I had abdicated my personal competency and responsibility to other people. In my quest to know more about less, I surrendered the problem of food production to agriculturalists, my health to physicians, the education of my children to educators, and the well-being of the earth to conservationists.

That left me with very little to do. Oh, I kept busy enough making money and entertaining myself. Of course, I earned my money as a specialist working for someone else so the quality and consequences of my work were never really accounted for. I didn’t even have to do much for my own entertainment because there are specialists for that sort of thing.

My downfall came shortly after I became a specialist in science when I got the sudden urge to entertain myself by playing a musical instrument. It was a radical idea, and my wife became alarmed. I think she and her friends must have gotten together and discussed the matter because she decided to purchase me a guitar. Her thinking was probably that when I found out how difficult it was to play, I would be more willing to return to watching television.

Some wicked gene, or contrary spirit, compelled me, though. I soon found I enjoyed doing something other than identifying and handling intestinal parasites. I know, that sounds crazy. The difficulty was that from there I began to grow my own food, service my own air conditioner, and even light my own pilot light when needed. I admit I didn’t paint my own fence, but conned the grandkids into doing that.

A person who can do only one thing literally can’t do anything else for himself or others. They have no idea what they would do if any kind of catastrophe were to occur, say, like a hurricane. If we as humans are filled with anxieties, maybe it’s because we ought to be. We’ve essentially specialized ourselves into a corner. But don’t worry too much.

There are specialists to help us with that. 

Gary McCallister, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), is a professor of biology at Colorado Mesa University.


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