Category Archives: Interdisciplinary Thought

In Defense of Dabbling

I have an admittedly broad range of interests.  I teach in two almost wholly unrelated fields: criminal justice and business (although I have joked that I can keep my job by training criminals on one hand and training people to catch them on the other), and I also teach a course in the Core curriculum that focuses on worldview and discipleship formation.  When I was interviewing for my job, I cited systematic theology as a hobby of mine.  You could almost call my interests schizophrenic, and, if I may abuse the comparison to a serious condition a little, all the different disciplinary voices in my head make me think a little differently at times.  But is knowing a little bit about a lot of different things really a worthwhile endeavor?

When I was first interviewed by the now president of my institution, he asked me if I would be comfortable being “a bit of a jack of all trades,” leaving the “master of none” bit unsaid.  The world today values expertise, and expertise means an acute focus on an amazingly small piece of the world.  When I worked in the legal field, I knew of tax experts who built their entire careers around their intimate knowledge of a single tax code provision.  Otherwise, just Google for dissertation titles, like this biology one that popped up when I searched “biology dissertation” : Host-specific Plasmacytoid Dendritic Cell Defenses In The Presence of Human and Macaque Skin Cells Infected with B virus by Nicole Brock at Georgia State University.  I have no idea what about half of those words mean, other than that we’re doing something to Human and monkey skin.  Matt Might, a professor in Computer Science at the University of Utah, explains this phenomenon brilliantly in a series of images in The Illustrated Guide to a Ph.D.

 Matt has licensed the guide for sharing with special terms under the Creative Commons license.

Matt has licensed the guide for sharing with special terms under the Creative Commons license.

The diagram above clearly shows the problem with being a jack of all trades.  Sure, I’ve got a law degree and a master’s in tax law, but at best that makes me a happy little amoeba, maybe a slightly bumpier paint splotch, but miles from adding anything to the sum of human knowledge.  When conceived of in these terms, progress is about an ocean of these tiny little needle pricks slowly expanding the size of the circle of human knowledge.  There is certainly significant value in this illustration, and I acknowledge that Dr. Might was seeking to be descriptive, rather than prescriptive, but this perception can also help explain some distortions in terms of the way we value and pursue knowledge.

I don’t know how many students I’ve talked to or advised in the last few years who are looking to do anything they can to “get the Gen Eds out of the way.”  Students in the sciences can barely put up with courses in the humanities, and humanities students hate that they have to take lab science courses.  In the end, the most popular general courses are often whichever ones are deemed easiest, and everyone is primarily concerned with the bottom-line question: “will this be useful in the real world?”  When the world looks like the diagram above, it’s only natural to conclude in the vast majority of cases that these general education courses are essentially worthless, something to get out of the way before getting down to real learning in a major or minor discipline.  In many (not all) careers, a college education is merely a way to check the box that you have some ability to read and write, while the near totality of the knowledge needed in a career will be developed and delivered on the job.  This all leads us to view college as a sort of remedial primary school with some technical training.  With this view of the world, developing genuinely broad individual knowledge is seen as largely irrelevant or even counter-productive (there are only so many hours in the day, after all!).

Where this perception falls short is in the assumption that it’s the radius of knowledge that counts.  If you’re out at the bleeding edge of human understanding, then you can really genuinely contribute something with that tiny focused push out on the bubble.  You’ve increased the radius of the circle, making the breadth of human knowledge a little bigger, and bigger, as they say, is always better.

I won’t dispute that there’s real value in that type of pursuit, but perhaps the analogy is limiting. Maybe we should think of this giant circle instead in terms of a giant brain.  Most of us assume that a bigger brain equals a smarter person, so obviously these little radial pushes (increasing the size of the brain) are the way to make humanity smarter.  However, science is unsure about the size/smarts correlation, and they’re sure that growth in brain size does not correlate with creativity or innovation.  Perhaps, to tweak the adage, it’s not about the size of your brain so much as how you use it.  Neuroscientists studying Albert Einstein’s brain have noted its unusual complexity and interconnection, while the size and general shape is ordinary.  To incorporate this to the metaphor, big leaps in innovation and creativity (the application of knowledge) may have more to do with making internal connections than with having a subatomic understanding of something.  Sometimes a needle-like focus is exactly what the situation needs, but that can also create tunnel vision, and in other situations innovation and progress may come through realizing that two disparate things are actually connected or that the understanding of one can advance the understanding of the other.

So this is my defense of dabbling: maybe it’s a good thing to be a happy little amoeba on the diagram.  You may not have any one extension that pushes out the radius of human understanding, but you might see connections or instructive analogies that those with more rigid focus will miss out on, and helping to make some of these connections, if it can’t expand the radius of human knowledge, can at least increase the depth of human understanding.

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