What’s Wrong with Well-Rounded?

As I enter the adult world, I cannot help but reflect on my college experience and what it has taught me. At best, I learned how to deal with frustrating and slow-moving academics, and at worst, I realized that academia is not for me. Why this realization is important to share, rather than to merely brood over at 2 A.M. while I consider the human condition and how it impacts me (classic millennial), is because my frustration with the academy extends to the real world. Or, as my professors liked to say “the real world,” with ironic quotation marks around it. I have come to realize that those professors were right –– the academy is absolutely the real world, and many of the frustrating qualities of the academy continue to exist in the real world. The focus of this particular blog post is specialization.

In other words, what’s wrong with being well-rounded? My parents raised me to understand a little bit of everything. I acknowledge my privilege in this domain––not everyone has the opportunity to take piano lessons or play on a sports team. In my particular case, my parents were able to provide myself and my brothers with this opportunity, and I do not take it for granted. They raised me to be well-rounded and to seek this quality in others.

I attended Skidmore College because of its slogan: Creative Thought Matters. While the students and professors often crack jokes about the slogan –– the most memorable is “Can’t Tell Mom” –– it works for me. I believe that it is not the specialized skill that matters, but the creative application of that skill. In my opinion, creativity is often nothing more than a mysterious and unusual aggregation of different skill-sets and types of knowledge. Creativity often stems from a group of people or of a person who has a broad range of interests.

In my experience, specialists often cannot fathom using tools outside of their discipline. Nathaniel Rich, writing about the possibilities the jellyfish may offer human medicine in Can a Jellyfish Unlock the Secret of Immortality?, paraphrases Shin Kubota. Kubota studies Turritopsis, a type of jellyfish touted as immortal. Rich writes: “Kubota can be encouraged by the fact that many of the greatest advancements in human medicine came from observations made about animals that, at the time, seemed to have little or no resemblance to man”(279). He cites the study of cowpox that helped “establish that the disease inoculated…against smallpox” and the discovery of penicillin. (279). Kubota’s work exemplifies the way that “thinking outside of the box” can provide unexpected solutions to major medical problems. Furthermore, I came to this idea while reading The Best American Science and Nature Writing. That I am even reading The Best American Science and Nature Writing is a testament to the value of well-rounded study and living.

To provide another example, I will turn to the digital humanities. DH work is the ultimate example of well-rounded, and for this reason is feared in English departments. When speaking to my more traditional English professors about DH, I at best received the equivalent of a pat on the head, like an exhausted mother gives her unruly child. At worst, I was treated like the cat who dropped a mouse on the doorstep as a gift. I wondered why this was the case. While I have come up with a number of reasons, I think the most pressing one is specialization. Traditionalists are afraid of people who break the rules and who think outside of the box. They do not like the idea that English majors may need to learn to code (gasp!), or worse that close reading is not the holy grail of humanistic study (bigger gasp!). This fear causes them to try to stifle the creative impulse of young literary critics who bring multiple skills to the table, whether that is an interest in code and its application to literature, or, less drastically, an attempt to combine two theoretical lenses not often connected. Squelching the brainchildren of well-rounded students prevents the possibility for finding the literary equivalent to penicillin.

I also perceive an irony in the fact that as the internet expands, the world becomes more specialized. How is it possible that we are seeking more specialization even though our widespread access to information is increasing? Perhaps we feel overwhelmed by this tidal wave of information, or it is a reactionary move toward “the good old days,” when you only knew what you needed to know to do your job. While I am not sure what the reasons behind this move are, I would advise against it. I think the response should be to throw oneself into the sea of information, and not in the Hamlet way –– “Or to take arms against a sea of troubles / And by opposing end them”(III.I.60-1) –– but with hope.

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