Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Barbarism of Specialization

In The God Who is There, Francis Schaeffer wrote, "In our modern forms of specialized education there is a tendency to lose the whole in the parts, and in this sense we can say that our generation produces few truly educated people. True education means thinking by associating across the various disciplines, and not just being highly qualified in one field, as a technician might be."

The late American philosopher Mortimer J. Adler shared Schaeffer's concerns and referred to "the barbarism of specialization"--a term used by Jose Ortega y Gasset in The Revolt of the Masses. In "The Great Conversation Revisited," Adler points out that the great books of the Western world were all written by generalists, not by specialists. Adler remarked, "Unless the barbarism of specialization is somehow transcended, it is unlikely that, in philosophy, the natural and social sciences, and history, truly great books will have been written in the closing decades of this [20th] century or will be written in the century to follow."

What do Adler and Schaeffer mean? Surely specialization is helpful to some extent. No one wants to have brain surgery performed by a physician who is not a specialist. Schaeffer and Adler do not dispute this. Instead, they were concerned with the overall lack of knowledge in areas of great importance.

What are these areas of great importance? Some of these areas include science, literature, philosophy, art, music, history, and religion. As such, the topic of specialization is relevant to apologetics. There is nothing wrong with specializing in certain areas as Christian thinkers. However, to more fully integrate the Christian worldview into every area of our lives, we need a better understanding of the significant areas and intellectual contributions of the great ideas and how they have shaped humanity.

Aside from reading relevant works by Adler and Schaeffer, I'd suggest studying resources such as Cultural Literacy by E.D. Hirsch and the companion volume, The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy. Another helpful resource is The Timetables of History by Bernard Grun, structured in chronological order, it allows a quick scan of concurrent events throughout history in areas of history, politics, literature, religion, philosophy, visual arts, music, science, technology, and daily life.

As thoughtful individuals who will likely encounter a wide variety of people with different interests, it is to our advantage to broaden our worldview horizons across various disciplines, rather than submit uncritically to "the barbarism of specialization."

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