Knowledge Is Great(er)

This essay won the third prize in the indiblogger "Knowledge is Great"Competition.

"Specialisation", the famous American Science Fiction author Robert A. Heinlein proclaimed, "is for insects", yet no modern education is complete without a specialisation because little creative synthesis can be mined without descending down the hierarchy of human knowledge.  While the division of knowledge into specialties, sub-specialties and super specialties of mental and manual labor makes economic sense and even though this division is rational and superior to any undifferentiated system of human enterprise, it is also the cause of anomie and alienation because knowledge is great.

Indeed, as with all things in life this greatness of knowledge is also relative. Knowledge is Great because it is (1) greater than the sum of its specialised subdivisions and (2) greater than the scope of a singular human lifespan.

Correspondingly, when the people realise that: (1) what they know is a only a tiny fraction of what is out there and (2) that try as they might, they never can know it all, a deep dissatisfaction develops among them as members of a naturally and terminally curious species.  Moreover, because knowledge and work often travel in tandem, this dissatisfaction resulting from the impossibility of attaining perfect knowledge is often carried forward, infecting the specialist's work and its ultimate output with an ideology that pervades much of the material world today.

Call it an overstatement if you will, but even the Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations agrees that this ideology of discounting effort towards long term goals (because the long term is uncertain and requires thinking in terms of an increasingly incomplete and therefore imperfect knowledge) is the primary cause of global financial crisis, terrorism, poverty, procrastination, unemployment, diseases and maybe even dandruff.

We might have varying definitions of the scope of perfection, but there few exceptions to the generalisation that humans seek forever higher ideals, and when these ideals seem unattainable, we change them to something attainable, settling for a little less than the absolute possible in the process. The focus on short and medium term is rife while the attention to longer term suffers. Specialisation is to be blamed for this short-termism.

That is what Heinlein meant when he equated specialisation with an entomological drive, to him specialisation always meant settling for a little less than the absolute possible. Cockroaches are experts in the art of survival so the lives of cockroaches are absolutely sustainable, but are they worth living?  Sure, it is necessary to whittle down areas of expertise to make our lives manageable,  but who says that one person can only be an "expert" in one thing only? It can be argued, for example, that specialisation in medicine saved more lives than general medicine could ever have, but the counterpoint is that if general medicine was made robust enough, there would perhaps be less lives that needed saving.

The solution then, simplistically stated, is for education systems around the world to help reverse this trend of blinding specialization by teaching students everywhere that ascending the hierarchical mines of human knowledge and coming out into the open unified fields of all understanding is just as necessary for any creative synthesis and that a specialization without the ability to generalize is just as useless as the ability to generalise from a lack of deep understanding or special knowledge.

The ancient discipline of Philosophy has always been one of the routes of ascent through the various verticals of knowledge as it rouses us from the numbing and complacent routine of knowing more and more about less and less by asking us the big, difficult and fundamental questions. By giving us the overview and "helicopter-shot" of all understanding and also by confronting our systems of knowing and believing, Philosophy brings us face to face with the limits of our understanding which culls forth a force of intellectual modesty which one can then deploy against alienation and disaffection of any kind. This is probably the reason why Philosophy has survived (both academically and otherwise) for so long despite bearing no immediate connection with the business of any profession and solving no seemingly practical problem facing mankind.

By allowing us to rise above the artificial and commercial distinctions and divisions of knowledge, Philosophy helps us see the one big ball of understanding all human knowledge really is and only when we see that the knowledge is greater than our knowledge are we sensitized to the plight of the human condition and only then can our education be called complete. Besides, by its virtue of being a professional no-person's land between subjects and disciplines, Philosophy becomes inherently interdisciplinary by sharing a common border with all divisions of great knowledge.

But even Classical Philosophy today stands sliced into numerous layers of specialization in order to efficiently feed the insatiable print-appetite of academia. So it is pertinent to remember that the primary task of Philosophy was asking rudimentary questions and not pontificating over procedural, semantic or legal lacunae and thereby serving the ulterior motives of one economic lobby or the other. Of course, by fundamental questions one means the questions, which, if answered differently than they are so far, change the world-view of everyone alive.

Thus, it appears worthwhile to me to investigate this perpetually topical field of interest at the London School of Economics because only then, I believe, I might become what Bertrand Russell intended when he referred to himself as a hybrid between a mathematician and a philosopher. I seek to specialize in this most vast, general and holistic of all subjects so that I may be found, in the words of Lord Macaulay, Ashburton, Melvill, Sowett and Lefervre (in their report on the Indian Civil Service, 1854) to be "superior to men who have (...) devoted themselves to the special studies of their calling".

If my argument in favour of broad generalisation or generalist study still seems counter-intuitive and against the grain of modern economic practices, consider the single biggest reason why a generalised study is better: Creativity.

Generalists are more creative because they have access to a richer network of knowledge which is wider than it is deep. Depth is good when ideas are meant to be re-enforcing, re-enforced or derivatives of a constant. Interdisciplinary width is needed to deal with change that happens at a quick pace, is more encompassing and has greater significance to any kind of majority or multitude.

The neologism "pancake people" coined by the American journalist Marshall P. Duke in an attempt to describe "the Internet generation, whose knowledge is wide but shallow" accepts this reality and silently acknowledges that pancake people might be in a better position to feed a hungrier world.

In rapidly changing uncertain circumstances, the  generalist will necessarily always outperform the mere specialist, which I already am.

Armed with extensive specialised knowledge of Computer Applications and programming, I shall then be able to (among many other things) deploy my acquired Philosophical acumen to create solutions which bring forth into the world software which coasts people through their deep metaphysical and existential crisis. Of course, I would need the help of Psychologists, Sociologists and Economists in this endeavour all of which are in no short supply within the multicultural campus of the LSE.

Ergo, it is not perfection of the ego that I will seek when I enrol myself as a lifelong-student hell-bent on earning a Master's degree in Philosophy at the London School of Economics; I merely wish to see knowledge in all its greatness revealed by internationally acclaimed teachers in one of the greatest cities on the planet.

The irony that the revolt against specialization starts by specialising in a subject of general interest is not lost on me but I am sure once I know my way out of the mines of a divided knowledge, my work down there will not suffer the disaffection of someone who is lost in the field of his or her specialisation.


Vicky Dada said...

I landed here through Indiblogger. Your post is more read-worthy than the prize would indicate it to be so.

In my quest towards Generalized knowledge, I pursued philosophical studies in India itself, and what you say is right, even a course in philosophy is designed to create specialists in historical thought rather than critical thinking. I did come across one analogy of how Generalized knowledge gives a better world-view and hence I decided to leave a comment. Its an metaphor used by Peter Senge (in his management book "The Fifth Discipline") to put forth a 'systems thinking' perspective. Breaking down knowledge into specialized areas, he says, is like breaking a mirror into pieces. Once broken, the pieces can never be put together to get the "bigger picture" again. Generalists see the bigger picture - the whole as the whole, and not merely as a sum of the parts.

Philosophy does say that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

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