Monday, November 27, 2006

Generalism in a specialized world

Society becomes more complex when individuals become more specialized, and individuals become more specialized when society becomes more complex. This is a truth I despair of every time I confront it, yet it is a truth. As I have said before, I have a visceral aversion to jargon, as its use deters the layperson from understanding the subject matter at hand. At the same time I understand that it is helpful for specialists to have a language with which to communicate with one another. Still, the idea of following a specialized career track, in which one learns the language of the field while moving further away from all other fields, turns me into a commitment-phobe.

And yet, there are fields that are generalist. Law and journalism are the two that come to mind. Both still require the practitioner to learn a language, though journalism's is a language of universalism. As a person who enjoys writing, I fear any stifling parameters to language, which appear in the law, such as legal jargon (too much Latin! and so forth) and a fairly strict writing format. These demands--flexibility in form of communication, generalism--do not comply with the needs of a complex society. So what is a person who wants to be both useful to society, gainfully employed, and interested in her work do?

Be cognizant of this "predicament," I say (to myself). I am in truth living among a luxury of choices. Maybe the new anomie springs from such constant consumerism, where choices are plentiful and perspective takes too much time to summon. I once asked someone several generations older than myself why he had chosen to be a doctor. "Because back then, if you wanted to go to professional school, you either went into law or medicine," he said. It was that easy. Of course, I know it was not easy: medical school is no cakewalk, but the point is, when one has few other choices, one has less room for doubt. As one of my teachers once told me (paraphrased), "the more I have learned, the less I realize that I know." Sometimes the source of paralysis is knowing too much.

1 comment:

Steph said...

I appreciate your thoughtful post. It's true that your predicament represents a "luxury of choices," which I like to think of as the product of privilege (due education, socioeconomic status, race, etc) more than consumerism. Consumerism is a product of privileged status in our society. Of course, that's not to trivialize how overwhelming it can be to have so many choices and opportunities at your disposal. I try to cope with this by asking myself, well what do I do with my privilege of choice? How do I incorporate my values into an area I feel passionate enough about that can sustain me for the long haul? Yeah, not everyone seeks that much from their career (whether it is externally or internally motivated)...but I get the sense that you are someone who wants to infuse purpose into your career. Whatever area you decide to enter, I think that it's usually possible to find a way to find meaning and "make it your own."