Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Intellectual Laziness

What’s the difference between Keynesian and classical economics? Which has a greater impact on global climate: man or nature? How many feet per second is the speed of sound? What function does RNA serve? Who wrote Ben Hur? Why does it matter?

Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Galileo, Thomas Jefferson, and others have been termed “Renaissance Men:” individuals who held expertise in many fields. da Vinci and Michelangelo, both famed for their art, also made forays into engineering and architecture, and made significant contributions to their contemporary body of scientific knowledge. Galileo, more than simply an astronomer, also studied advanced mathematics and philosophy. Thomas Jefferson was statesman, botanist, philosopher, author, lawyer, architect,…the list of his accomplishments goes on and on. The modern term, “polymath,” is one that’s virtually unknown—mostly because of modern assumptions.

Not too long ago, I had a student sit down near where I was grading my students’ research papers in conference in the library, and simply listen. My students’ papers were over everything from the psychological effects that various forms of media had on kids’ psyches, to what was the underlying causes for the (then beginning) economic meltdown, to why laws should be changed to permit and money should be focused toward pharmaceutical research on marijuana. The papers ranged from excellent to the student had to have been high when they wrote the paper.

But I understood practically all of all of the papers—the topics and the research.

That’s what the student who’d sat nearby listening (though I thought he was reading) noticed. After my last student had left, he looked up at me and told me that one of his professors described Leonardo da Vinci as someone who knew nearly literally everything, and that said professor said that, with the amount of knowledge now out there in the world, that was impossible for the modern scholar. He said that’s why the modern scholar specializes—that it’s possible to know everything about one topic, even if it’s not possible to know everything about all.

He said he’d never met anyone who had a good enough grounding in all to understand most of anything they read. And that it was kinda scary.

Two years later, I’ve been thinking about that discussion with that student. And I’ve been thinking about the too-narrow specialization that we see in various humanities departments. While I understand the specialization in the sciences—no way can anyone do serious research into cracking the human genome, for instance, and have time to be serious students of anything else—I’ve never understood that level of specialization of study in any other field.

Well, scratch that. I think I might be able to understand the “but since we can’t know everything, we should specialize to be experts in part of part of one thing (like women’s pre-colonial French literature, between 1400 and 1450)” mindset.

It’s sheer intellectual laziness.

With the movement of facts and knowledge from being archived only in libraries to being archived a mouse click away on a web search, there is no reason people have to go through life knowing only their narrow field of study. I teach English, but I understand how flawed the study was that suggested a possible link between the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine and autism. I understood that not simply because of my reading comprehension, but because I understand the theories, and I understand how the scientific method is supposed to work. I understood why so many people bought it without questioning it because I understand psychology, and I understand the heard of sheep mentality that unquestioningly trusts someone they consider an expert.

With Google connecting everyone who has access to a computer to much of the knowledge in the world, there is no excuse for this blind, trusting, unquestioning, “if the expert says it, it must be true,” mindset that’s bled over to “if someone famous says it, there’s got to be something to it” that’s continued on to “they’re famous, and they feel strongly about something, and I don’t have an opinion, so I’ll follow theirs.”

I’m not the only one who has this ability to think for myself, and the intellectual curiosity to look up things that interest me, or concern me. Joe the Plumber in this last election—you know, the guy really loony left stole the private records on so that they could publish him and try to discredit him—may have been a manual laborer, but he certainly demonstrated an understanding of the way politics, taxes, and economics work that most of those who voted in the last Presidential election lacked. Most of the blogs I read demonstrate an intellectual curiosity that’s been fed, satisfied, and fed again, leading to a basic understanding of a huge array of topics.

I compare my reading habits, and those of my friends in the blog sphere, with my colleagues in most branches of the humanities, and all I can think of is Robert Heinlein’s take on the whole idea of specialization, articulated in his Notebooks of Lazarus Long:

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

-Robert A. Heinlein


  1. Also, I've seen - at least in the sciences - sometimes a stealthy prejudice. That someone who cares about topics outside their field, someone who is interested in other areas of learning, rather than being lauded as a "polymath" is damned as a "dilettante." If you are the sort of person who reads books outside your field, there are certain individuals who think you're weird and wasting your time.

    I feel sorry for them. (I could answer most of the questions you posed at the top, save for the economics one. And I could probably take a rough stab at that and be partly right.)

  2. I have confessed HERE that I rarely read a BOOK--fiction or otherwise.

    I have had a personal computer for nearly 15 years (at about age 55)...I have read & learned more in that period than I 'learned' in the previous 55 years.

  3. Ricki, the various English Departments I've been, *ahem,* _privileged_ to have contact with are much the same, only worse: if you read for fun, you're weird. And the sad part is that most of us majored in English to begin with because we loved to read. I'm perhaps one of a hundred and fifty teaching in the English dept. where I got my MA that still read for fun. There's a higher proportion of my current colleagues that still find reading fun, whether it's fiction or nonfiction.

    Oldcatman, you don't have to read books to learn--that was one of my points. Do you know how many of my acquaintances don't have any kind of curiosity? They hear things from the news, don't understand what's being discussed, shrug, and leave it to the "experts." There are far too many people like that out there--it's why the American public is allowing themselves to be screwed by our politicians. They're too apathetic to look for the facts that the politicians are distorting.


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