The Convergence of Specialist and Generalist Knowledge accelerated by Computer Communications

Original print publication: 『香川短期大学紀要』[Kagawa Junior College Journal] 24, 1-6 (1996).


The Convergence of Specialist and Generalist Knowledge accelerated by Computer Communications

by Steve McCarty

Summary in Japanese:

概要

 往来は学者・研究者といえば、一つの専門分野にのみ深くかかわるものとされていたが、現今のように、学術分野のすべてがコンピュータ化され、インターネットによって結ばれるようになると、他のさまざまな分野の知識への接触を通じ、自他の専門知識を統合して問題解決にあたったり、新機軸を打ち出したりする者 (generalist scholars) が現われてもおかしくないし、またそれが待望される時代でもある。より細分化された専門知識をもち、かつ、統合的知識をも持ちあわせた者 (academic generalists) は、理解の深さと視野の広さを武器に、現代社会が直面するさまざまな問題を理解したり、社会の要請に応えたりすることができるからである。

ポストモダンの世界は複雑をきわめ、生きていくのにストレスが多く、人間関係に対処する心理学の知識や、自我の確立が求められるが、これを欠いた場合、容易にマインドコントロールされる危険性がある。特に、政策を立案する立場にある者や高度な科学技術をもつ者は、専門の知識のほかに、とくに人文学系統の素養を備える必要がある。これからの教育は、この点を重視するべきであるし、個人としても、生涯、自己研修を怠らないことが肝要である。山積する問題を解決するためにハイテク技術が駆使されるのは当然の勢いであるが、それを管理監督する高度な倫理が確立できるか否かに21世紀の世界の命運がかかっているからである。
武本明子

Prefatory note

The format for citing references in this paper is drawn from the American Psychological Association (1993) and its proposed standard for citing electronic sources such as through the Internet (Land, 1995). That a standard style manual for linguistics in the humanities comes from psychology in the social sciences, and is communicated through the medium of computer networks, serves as an example of the thesis of this paper.

Introduction

This paper examines the changing relationship between specialized and general knowledge, reconsidering the view that ever-increasing specialization is superior to generalist knowledge. Trends toward interdisciplinary studies, multiple specializations, and the computerization of virtually every field are rendering untenable the traditional notion of specialization in one sub-field. Computer communications through the Internet in particular are at the cutting edge of new developments in scholarship, so academics in all fields need the auxiliary skill of computer literacy. Global computer communications are moreover changing the nature of knowledge itself, both as information and as cognition. It will be argued that these trends are accelerating the convergence of specialist and generalist knowledge.

To recognize the interdependence between specialist and generalist knowledge would grant them equal importance. Such a paradigm shift could in turn help revalorize general education, raising the status of the first two years of higher education. As it is more incumbent upon humanities scholars to synthesize learning across the curriculum (McCarty, 1995e, p. 43), generalist scholars may surface first in the liberal arts as transformed by computer communications. This paper thus predicts the emergence of a new breed of academic generalists.

The changing equation of specialist and generalist knowledge

We have come a long way from the simple days of adaptation for survival, when one trade was enough for a lifetime, often a son the same career as his father, a daughter the same as her mother. Democratization, starting with Athens 25 centuries ago (McCarty, 1995d, p. 24), has fostered unprecendented freedom. Yet mental freedom brings responsibilities and difficult choices, increasing the possiblility of losing one's way in the process of self-realization. Hence much general knowledge becomes necessary to navigate one's way unfailingly through life, to live wisely and find happiness.

The world is becoming increasingly complex, and advancements in all fields are accelerated by breakthroughs in technology such as the Internet. No one can keep up with the information explosion, so individuals need to be selective and self-aware, to keep their goals clear and develop strategies to find the information they need without getting sidetracked.

To be a generalist cannot mean to know everything, but it does not mean to be a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. A vast amount of general knowledge has become necessary in everyday life: four skills in at least one language, following current trends and news; health care, sports and nutrition; safe driving or commuting; human relations, including one's simultaneous social roles such as parent, spouse, colleague, citizen and voter, to mention a few. Each normal person now has considerable general knowledge, while the knowledge of the academic is more specialized. An academic generalist would have deep understanding and a wide perspective, resulting in the ability to solve actual problems and contribute to various domains of life.

The knowledge to function in each domain of everyday life is growing more and more specialized. That is, the nature of knowledge itself is changing. The future would appear to consist of all specialized knowledge if we could see it now, just as the present would appear to someone awakening after decades. To be a generalist scholar here means to be able to readily learn specialized knowledge from various fields and to apply it creatively.

What makes an academic generalist different from the layperson is that the academic has internalized scientific standards. For example, the academic does not believe unverified assertions and does not overgeneralize based on one or two instances as laypersons often do. Academic standards are the universal aspect of a rigorous graduate school program in any field. General education in liberal arts at the undergraduate level can and should result in generalists, but it cannot readily confer the disciplined way of thinking of the scholar. It is seldom articulated in words, but professors in particular are expected to uphold rigorous academic standards and ethics.

While knowledge is becoming more specialized, user-friendly interfaces have made it easier for anyone of sound mind to become a generalist. Computers have helped us realize this, since a three-year-old can now operate a computer from start to finish, using a mouse. But there are endless other cases of user-friendly interfaces: when we flick on a light switch, we do not have to think about all those electrons and the laws of nature that rule their movements. It is analogous to the central nervous system of the body which fortunately functions unconsciously most of the time, freeing the conscious mind to pursue volitional matters. In the same way, user-friendly interfaces free us from unnecessary technical details, allowing us to combine materials and media to accomplish things more creatively.

Knowledge then exists for us at two levels, like the difference between being able to operate a machine versus being able to fix or make one. It usually serves our purposes to simply operate the machine. Even the atomic physicist just needs access to an atom-smasher that works, as a means to produce research findings, without having to specialize in atom-smashers themselves. As interfaces become increasingly user-friendly, the quality of generalist work can be expected to improve.

An Internet search in December 1995 of the keyword "generalist" showed that it appeared most often in medical contexts such as the general practitioner. It was also used for other occupations, particularly those involving computers: "The World Wide Web is a generalist's dream, and a specialist's nightmare. The person who flourishes in producing for this environment is part technical professional, part writer, part layout designer, part information analyst, and part visionary" (Morris, 1995). Another use of the term "generalist" was in university catalogues describing the goal of their liberal arts education. A well-rounded general education is needed to counteract the dangerous tendency to over-specialization, where universities turn into vocational schools and lose their universality (McCarty, 1995a, pp. 8-10; 山岸, 1995, p. 9) .

"Specialization enhances production, so we specialize (Burnap, 1995). [Whereas t]he internet system has untapped potential to greatly improve our collective vision. At present we each use search engines to find information and ideas relevant to our own, and we try to post our data and thoughts where they will be relevant to others. We have discussions in a small number of specialized newsgroups chosen from a list of many. Thus far internet is proving itself a powerful communication tool for specialized endeavors... However, the primary roadblock to opening the eyes of science is the narrow-minded attitude that usually accompanies specialization."

The tendency to specialize further and further has broken academia into a proliferation of narrow areas of study or hybrids thereof. One such speciality cannot even suffice to claim mastery of the field to which it belongs. In the case of foreign language teaching (FLT), linguistics is first divided into applied and theoretical. Applied linguistics has about ten branches, but they are increasing as new areas develop and their representatives seek fuller status, such as global issues or computer-assisted language learning (CALL). Bilingualism is one branch of applied linguistics, but it has been shown that, even limited to FLT in Japan, bilingualism consists of at least 26 main areas of study or auxiliary disciplines that specialists find relevant (McCarty, 1995b, pp. 7-10; McCarty, 1995c, pp. 36-43). It is therefore inevitable that researchers in bilingualism study not one but quite a number of these fragments of the linguistics field.

Scholars increasingly bridge the gap between theory and practice by applying their specialized knowledge to areas of everyday life usually considered unspecialized. Chemists on both sides of the Pacific Ocean have written cookbooks showing how food can reflect aesthetics and culture while being delicious as well as nutritious (Babcock & Shaw, 1988; 北川, 1994). In another case, English teachers combined translation skills with specialized knowledge of Japan to co-author practical guidebooks that also gave deep insight into Japanese culture(Takemoto, Narasaki, Kirkup & McCarty, 1988; Takemoto & McCarty, 1993). General-interest books are read more widely than most academic publications, and writing them is a kind of volunteer work, as such works contribute to the local community and to intercultural understanding.

Another major trend changing the nature of knowledge is that of interdisciplinary studies. As just one example, a university course in the Psychology of Religion could be cross-listed in the curriculum under both the Psychology and Religion departments. As another example, the natural and social sciences lend their methodologies and research findings to linguistics and language teaching through neuro-linguistics, sociolinguistics and psycholinguistics. Breakthroughs can result from investigating the same phenomenon on different levels from the perspective of different fields. Second language acquisition research, for example, can benefit from the findings of neuroscience: "Based on research studies using positron emission tomography (PET) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), new evidence suggests that language instruction should be initiated at a very early age in order to promote optimum bilingual development" (Silva, 1995, p. 3).

The nature of knowledge is evolving so rapidly now that universities are changing their curricula and considering what fields can abide for the foreseeable future. For the more specialized the knowledge, the more quickly it becomes obsolete. Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. is offering a new graduate program in Communication, Culture, and Technology, which "is an interdisciplinary program devoted to cultural theory, media studies, social policy, and communication technologies. This innovative new program focuses on current issues and theory at the intersection of Discourse, Language, Media, and Technology" (Irvine, 1995). Many different fields are obviously involved in the program, and it seems to reflect what general areas are considered to have abiding value for occupations in a changing society.

Similarly, in Hong Kong in 1996, two interdisciplinary conferences were scheduled. One was on language rights, while the other was on knowledge and discourse (Oda, 1995, p. 79). Andrew Barfield of the University of Tsukuba received information on the latter and e-mailed it to this investigator: [I]nternational multidisciplinary conference: "Knowledge & Discourse: Changing relationships across academic disciplines & professional practices."
"There is a growing awareness of the roles that language and culture play in the construction of the knowledges and beliefs that underpin our disciplinary and professional practices.
"The broad aims of this conference are to:
# highlight the complex roles language and culture play in the construction of the knowledges and beliefs than underpin or dominate our disciplines and professions
# critique disciplinary and professional knowledges and social and discourse practices from social, philosophical, historical and political perspectives
# promote change in academic curricula by bringing different disciplines into dialogue with each other, and by encouraging them to reconsider their disciplinary identities
# explore learning and knowledge-making resources beyond the walls of the academy, in the social and professional cultures of the communities that nurture those disciplines and institutions ...
"[T]he organizers would like to assure all potential participants of their belief in pluralism, diversity and change, in mutual tolerance, and in the equal rights of all peoples to pursue their own beliefs and ideas, so long as these are not inconsistent with a respect for those rights in others." (University of Hong Kong English Centre, 1995).

These words coming from Hong Kong took on a particular urgency as 1997 approached. Academia is no longer an ivory tower for narrow specialists focusing on minutiae known only to their peers. Scholars are needed and increasingly involved in their communities worldwide.

Specialized knowledge quickly becomes obsolete, so scholars should not be wedded to one field but should have some detachment and comparative perspective. Otherwise they tend to overvalue their own specialty.

What is considered specialized knowledge, moreover, tends to change into general knowledge if it becomes useful or necessary for people in various walks of life to know. That is, specialized knowledge either succeeds in becoming a part of general knowledge or else it is rendered useless and unnecessary. What constitutes specialist or generalist knowledge is not the intrinsic nature of the knowledge so much as its relative inaccessibility or accessibility.

Now the Internet is opening up unprecedented access to specialized knowledge, perhaps threatening the privileged status of specialists along with that of their knowledge. This new accessibility of specialist knowledge may naturally deconstruct the hierarchy where specialists, isolated behind a wall of jargon, assume a superiority over those with general knowledge. The multidisciplinary nature of the Internet for one thing is forcing academics to clarify what they mean to a general audience if they are to compete in the marketplace of ideas.

Conclusion

Various trends and events can now be seen in light of the changing equation of specialized and general knowledge. One such sign of the times is the notion of the cluster specialist who needs more than one specialization to do an adequate job. The growing necessity for multiple specialization is moreover leading to a new type of generalist knowledge that consists of specialized knowledge from various fields. A generalist scholar would be able to synthesize diverse knowledge and apply it to solve problems or create new knowledge. For scientific principles and tests of truth are much the same across all disciplines. Furthermore, all knowledge, cognitive as well as factual, is ultimately interrelated by natural laws. Thus specialist and generalist knowledge could be seen as interdependent and predicted to coalesce in the future.

The post-modern world is complex and stressful, so people need a philosophy of life as much as ever, as evidenced by the textbook Sophie's World (Gaarder, 1995; 池田, 1995) becoming a worldwide best-seller in many languages. People also need a grasp of psychology to cope with human relations and to clarify their own self-concept lest they be defined and controlled by others. It is important for the welfare of the world that not only scholars but policy-makers and technocrats, among others, receive a well-rounded education and continuing self-education in the humanities. For the fate of the world may hinge on whether or not the high ethics can be found to administer high-tech solutions to the planet's problems in the 21st Century.

Scholars thus have a social responsibility to apply their knowledge for the practical benefit of humanity, to cultivate a global outlook in themselves as well as in their students, and to communicate across boundaries, be they national, cultural, or disciplinary. Now every field is becoming computerized and is being brought into dialogue with all the rest. With the advent of the Internet there is furthermore a new interface with people from all continents and occupations. Scholars can therefore have a much greater impact on society, provided they are persuasive in non-technical English and are effective at computer-mediated communications (see Ellsworth, 1994, pp. 382 ff.).

We have now reconsidered specialist and generalist knowledge in light of the information age, and find that they are not opposite but complementary. Knowledge of both specialist and generalist scale will continue to be necessary to scholarship in the future. Perhaps education itself has much to do with turning specialized knowledge into general knowledge, so it may be time to search the horizon for the new academic generalist.

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Updated on 3 December 2001

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