Wednesday, June 04, 2014
Specialists versus Generalists
The "narrow specialist," whether in linguistics or papyrology or numismatics or in any other subject, if he has life, will have more interesting things to say, and will make a more lasting impression, than a barrel of "critico-interpretive" "scholar-teachers" broadly communicating overall concepts. The lively specialist, in contrast, will eventually read a great deal: in the nature of things, he has to. No one who lacks wide knowledge can be a good specialist. This fact is not realized by the overall communicators, who too often have never tried really to master anything. Bunk has no future.Id., p. 6:
For every lively scholar, every happy day must include some kind of progress, must witness the acquisition of some nugget of new truth or understanding, however limited. If there is time for only ten minutes of research a day, it is still essential. "You do it," W.O. Van Quine said to me, "for its therapeutic value."Id., p. 7:
Many people in the world today, especially in America, are in a silly, shallow mood about learning. They speak of "relevancy," which "luxury scholarship" neglects. They have forgotten the old toast: "Here's to Mathematics—may it never do any good to anyone!" They would not understand (I do not say imitate) Lord Cavendish, the famous physicist, who, it is said, performed important experiments, wrote out the results, and then tore up the papers: enough for him that one mind had known the truth. Deplorable; but the point is that above all else the scholar is a disinterested seeker after truth. He seeks truth because he loves truth and the pursuit of it. His love gives him life. Communities everywhere, not least in America, need such seekers, such mystical lovers of truth: not fewer but far more.
Cf. William Abbott Oldfather (1880-1945), quoted by William M. Calder III in "Nuda Veritas: William Abbott Oldfather on Classics at Columbia," Illinois Classical Studies 18 (1993) 359-378 (at 370-371):
I regard it as nothing less than a catastrophe that the control of appointments of the Department of Classics should be so distinctly in the hands of one single man, W.L. Westermann, a competent historian, indeed, but only in an extremely narrow and unimportant aspect of ancient history, he is utterly without understanding of or taste for the aesthetic, literary, philosophical, and linguistic aspects of Greek and Roman culture. He systematically decries and belittles those humanistic values, which alone justify the continued existence of the Classics at all, in comparison with the trivial minutiae of the price of pigs, and the methods of writing fractions, or the barbarous bookkeeping in some wholly obscure and damnable village in decadent Egypt. Such narrow-visioned specialists there must be, & of course, they must be fanatical about the value of their own work, or else nothing could possibly induce them to do it, but to allow a man of such domineering temper and such utter lack of cultural interests to control the entire future of the Classics, whose values are surely cultural if they possess any values at all, is just a kind of tragedy.