Flogging dead horses


in praise of generalists



By Rajneesh Narula

(Another in my occasional essay series) http://meritbbs.unimaas.nl/narula/essays.html



We don’t just live in a knowledge-driven society: we are verily drowning in it. Just when we got used to the abundance of knowledge available in books, newspapers and journals, we had radio and TV thrown at us. Just as we got the hang of audio-visual information, we now have the Internet to contend with. Mankind may be the product of evolution, but damn it, evolution is supposed to be a truly gradual process. I am not certain we are supposed to be moving this fast. To make matters worse, the traditional way to deal with too much information- ignoring it – no longer works. No longer is the excuse, “its an obscure journal published out of Ouagadougou” valid. Because, like it or not, you can probably find a pdf file somewhere on the web if you look hard enough.


What is a person to do, all this information, and nowhere to run? This problem has bugged mankind since the Phoenicians of antiquity invented the first alphabet, and this matter continues to be a thorn in man’s side. Man – forever seeking to maintain the status quo – has doggedly reacted to this challenge in very much the same way these last four or five millennia. First, he has sought to ignore anything that isn’t completely relevant to his immediate existence (thereby perpetuating ignorance, the topic of an earlier essay). Second, man has sought to specialise. In other words, because I cannot grasp all the knowledge that is available to me, why not pick a little niche and focus all my energy on being really knowledgeable on one area.


Specialisation had its uses during the renaissance when knowledge was a valuable commodity, hard to come by. To own a book was considered an achievement; to have read 20 solicited gasps of amazement. Your average medieval scholar might spend his entire life tracing all 3 books that defined the field of (say) astronomy at the time. Moreover these scholars had other things to do apart from pursuing knowledge: some were monks or ascetics whose days were otherwise filled with self-flagellation, prayer and fasting. The rest were noblemen with orgies to arrange, peasants to impoverish and damsels to rescue. The point is that these chaps were not doing the thirst for knowledge thing on a full time basis, and were dead from gonorrhoea, goitre or smallpox by the time they were 40. Specialisation was the only way to go, really.


One would have thought that since scholars nowadays get paid to do the learning thing on a full-time basis, the excess of opportunity and information should lead men to know more about many things rather than a lot about only one, but despite the occasional Leonardo da Vinci, the renaissance man has never caught on as a popular career option.  It would seem – if anything- that the specialisation trend has been increasing rather than decreasing. To put it simply: There are plenty of people who still spend their entire lives flogging the same horse.


Unfortunately, the horse never seems to quite die. My recent excursion into the area of classical studies reveals ongoing debates on the honesty of scholars dead some 2500 years, and that these debates began pretty much about the same time as the papyrus was drying on the scholar’s magnum opus. Its not as if the scholar in question had addressed a burning question such as the cure for the common cold (another chestnut), or the ideal way to prevent nappy rash. No indeed. Herodotus wrote what was arguably the first decent history book, but has been accused ever since of making up his stories. Did he lie or didn’t he? Does it matter? Can we ever know for certain without the aid of a time machine and a lie detector test? Does anyone care? The thing about this example is it shows that with time there is actually a decline in the amount of knowledge in this area what with Herodotus and most of his drinking buddies being dead and all, as well as the internet, the vacuum tube and the printing press all being very small gleams in non-existent eyes. Yet there are probably more people alive today trying to crack this nut then there were in 450 BC.


So perhaps our desire to specialise (a.k.a. flog just one horse) may not have to do with Too Much Information (TMI) and the internet and the knowledge-based society. Humans simply have always liked picking one horse and flog it to with an inch of its life, and this phenomenon is largely independent of the information society. In the unlikely event that person no. 1 does indeed finish the animal off, person no. 2 comes and revives the horse, and continues with the perverse business of torturing the animal. And so on and so forth, ad infinitum.


Occasionally horses are in fact flogged to death. Dakota tribal wisdom says that when you discover you are riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount. Sometimes even death certificates are issued, but more often than not academics find new strategies to ride the dead horse which include:


I raise these issues because - apart from being a card-carrying member of the association for the prevention of cruelty to dead horses - I happen to be a card-carrying academic, engaged (as all academicians do) in the serial persecution of semi-answered questions.


But – and here I differ from my brethren – I derive limited pleasure from specialisation. It is true that there is some merit in flogging just one horse properly, rather than several improperly. The world does need specialists, after all. But the world also needs generalists. However, academics just cannot accept that sometimes when you squeeze a lemon for long enough there just isn’t going to be any more juice left no matter how long you try.


I must admit to being somewhat biased. I suffer from a short attention span. I am also an existentialist. I believe we live and then we die. When we die we become meat for worms. Buddhists and Hindus believe that they have the option of returning for encore performances, I do not.  I do not regard the riding of a single horse as a viable long-term option under these circumstances. I would even consider a set of closely related horses if I could somehow be certain that I would have other lives to live when other horses may be flogged. But I am yet to receive such assurances, and I therefore think it is my duty to cover as much ground as I can before I move from flesh to dust.


Reality is about wonderful co-existence of variety, of species, of ideas, of thoughts, of disciplines, and if disparately unrelated subjects can be brought to cross-pollinate, this is surely no crime? Indeed, the crime of ignorance in a world of opportunities is by far the greater. To live, but not to seek, not to strive, not to search, and not to consider is not to have lived at all.



Copenhagen 031028