I, Jack of some trades


To be an academic is to tie oneself to a discipline, with all its subtle rules and underlying ideologies, and perhaps not quite a “servant of truth” in the sense that, I suppose, most people understand. Despite all the contemporary talk of “inter-disciplinarity”, no credence or legitimacy within the walls of the Academy can be enjoyed without having completely (and fruitfully) committed oneself to a single field for the greater part of one’s life. This is why so many of those who have managed to contribute to multiple fields tend to be so…old. While such people have no doubt been studying across boundary lines most of their lives, they have predominantly done so on their own time. Actual, concrete, public contributions to other fields tend to occur much, much later. That kind of commitment is to generalists like me not only unnecessary, but actively undesirable and counterproductive. I cannot wait for my grandchildren to arrive before I am taken seriously as a “public intellectual”.

For is not an implicit duty of all intellectuals with any desire to see positive socio-cultural-economic-political change to be of the “public” variety? Why, if I have a good idea, which is of any relevance to the lives of others beyond mine, should I not want such others to try and take advantage of the idea, make use of it, benefit from it, and thereby, in a sense, “complete” it? Is it not after an idea has been thoroughly (mis)used for generations that we come to appreciate its true form? Do I not myself have something to gain by allowing my ideas to generate results? Those who are disdainful of the public eye, who find comfort within Ivory walls – are they anything but cowards? What is their preference to deal primarily with the youth and their own tribesmen but a sign of cowardice?

The view that “generalism” is somehow shallow is pervasive. Generalists and intellectuals are thought to have merely a casual grasp over each of the disciplines they touch, and are therefore not to be taken seriously in the Academy, but relegated to journalism and “popular science”. Yet this reflects a profound misunderstanding of the terms “generalist”, “interdisciplinary” and “intellectual”, among others. An inter or multi-disciplinarian is one who either works in the gaps between disciplines, or adopts approaches, methodologies and the epistemology from one discipline for use in another. By and large, they tend to have a substantial training in one or two disciplines, and are not in the full sense of the word generalists. The latter are not inter-disciplinarians – disciplinary boundaries and gaps are not their domains, but completely immaterial. They do not seek to cross-fertilize.

Generalism is a specialization in its own right. We are not on the lookout for different fields to draw from or “touch” – we are on the hunt for individual ideas, and will adopt any framework(s) to advance in that hunt. The amount of discipline, rigour and training such a hunt requires is no less than what a conventional specialization demands, but is qualitatively different. Generalism is a specialized mindset – to consistently disregard boundaries and traditions in the pursuit of an idea requires its own specialized training. And because the university is in many ways just like any other organization, which survives on the division of labour, it can never be a suitable training ground for a true generalist. Holism requires that success is NOT measured by the standards that the contemporary scientific community employs, but by standards that are both haughtily individualistic yet submissively collectivist. The intellectual, like the artist, is not bound by any rules but his/her own, but must also in the end submit to the ruthless gaze of the public. It is not a life that anyone who values certainty and stability can hope to live, but it is the only one that may be called the true life of the mind.

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