A Discourse Concerning Being a Generalist

I’m doing my first reading for my first class to really examine the Great Thinkers of Western Civilization, which, because the class is about political theory, happens to be Rousseau’s Discourse Concerning Inequality. The reading list consists of Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche, and I’m struck as I read Rousseau how contingent developing any type of theory about the nature of human existence is contingent on having a really broad general intellectual knowledge. This was particularly true in the 18th century, when “natural philosophy” hadn’t yet wholly split off into the natural sciences and philosophy, and these two branches hadn’t yet split into the present sorts of disciplines you can major in at your average American research university. I’m sitting here thinking that my political theory reading could easily be relevant to my anthropology class on human evolution as well, and while it’s awesome when it’s not just my departmentals that inform upon each other, but my other random classes as well, it’s probably more interesting to consider what this brings to bear upon the Era of the Academic Hyperspecialization.

The education press is full, of course, of discussion of the fact that academia these days is highly specialized. It’s common to see folks complaining at Inside Higher Ed that newly-minted PhDs come out of grad school so much trained to think solely about a postcolonial reading of the work of an obscure Jamaican author or the role of a single gene on the X chromosome that they’re ill-prepared to teach undergraduate survey courses for which there’s the highest need, like 20th Century American Literature or Intro to Evolutionary Biology. This is particularly a concern in an era in which more and more newly-minted PhDs will not get jobs at places like Princeton which are looking for theorists with an expertise in Caribbean literature or high-powered researchers who can benefit from well-funded lab facilities. Those kinds of jobs simply don’t exist, and instead what the profession is looking for are people who can take on a 6/6 load of intro-level courses and teach them all well. But we know all this. And what, exactly, does it have to do with Rousseau, who never had to adjunct a semester in his life?

There’s probably very little relationship behind the kind of generalist Rousseau (or, to pick a more modern-day example for the sake of demonstrating diversity, Foucault) was and the kind of generalist a community-college job posting expects you to be. One is an essentially elite category (according to society’s measure of these things), and the other isn’t. One can often seem entirely devoted to appearing completely incomprehensible, and one is entirely devoted to making academic subject matter comprehensible—frequently to an audience not used to deciphering incomprehensible things. But the intellectual development of our culture wouldn’t get very far without people who are capable of synthesizing all its disparate aspects—whether that be a Rousseau drawing on what we would term the disciplines of history, politics, philosophy, anthropology, biology, sociology, and maybe something like cultural studies to advance a complex diagramming of the nature of human interaction; or a skilled teachers who can make American literature relevant to the stay-at-home mom taking a night class and biology accessible to the business major who needs to pass a science requirement, neither of whom has any particular humanistic background or inclination. A generalist who can understand why and how Rousseau can impact the life and worldview of a student who sees no point in politics or philosophy or cultural and social theory is as necessary to our intellectual culture as the transdisciplinary vision of Rousseau himself.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: we have no business locking ourselves in the ivory tower if we can’t poke our heads out every once in a while to inform the discourse of reality as well.


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