The generalist versus the specialist

Jack Miles, a professor of English and Religious Studies with the University of California-Irving and author of GOD: A Biography and Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God, wrote an essay in which he addresses three differences between an academic and an intellectual:

  1. An academic has and wants an audience disproportionately made up of teachers and students, while an intellectual has and wants teachers and students in his audience only in proportion to their place in the general educated public.
  2. An academic is a specialist who has disciplined his curiosity to operate largely within a designated area, while an intellectual is a generalist who deliberately does otherwise.
  3. An academic is concerned with substance and suspicious of style, while an intellectual is suspicious of any substance that purports to transcend or defy style.

Here is an excerpt regarding the second point:

It is not that, as an intellectual, one can or should seek to subordinate everybody else’s knowledge to one’s own grand purposes. Even G. W. F. Hegel arrived too late to do that, and no one has tried since. What is called for, paradoxically, is less a store of knowledge than a “store” of ignorance. By forcing oneself to go where one is oneself the blinking beginner rather than the seasoned expert, one learns to turn one’s own narrow intellectual sophistication into a broadened version of itself. A generalist is someone with a keener-than-average awareness of how much there is to be ignorant about. In this way, generalization as a style of writing is decidedly different from mere simplification or popularization. If a specialist is someone who knows more and more about less and less, a generalist is unapologetically someone who knows less and less about more and more. Both forms of knowledge are genuine and legitimate. Someone who acquires a great deal of knowledge about one field grows in knowledge, but so does someone who acquires a little knowledge about many fields. Knowing more and more about less and less tends to breed confidence. Knowing less and less about more and more tends to breed humility. Popularization, which certainly has its place, conveys the specialist’s confidence but also his or her isolation. Generalization conveys the generalist’s diffidence but also his or her connectedness and openness to further connections. Something like this, to repeat, is the core difference between the academic and the intellectual in action on the page.

Read the entire essay: “Three Differences Between an Academic and an Intellectual: What Happens to the Liberal Arts When They Are Kicked Off Campus?” (Cross Currents).


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