Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, by David Epstein

Randy Robertson urges universities to look again at the downsides of highly specialist degrees

October 3, 2019
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David Epstein, a former sports writer, starts his book with a deceptively simple story about golf. It turns out that golf, chess and even, counter-intuitively, firefighting provide “kind learning environments”: patterns emerge in these domains that a single-minded dedication helps to master. Learning environments in the real world, by contrast, tend to be “wicked”, so narrow specialisation can lead us astray.

In a university setting, the rationale for early specialisation hinges on jobs. Families are reluctant to spend tens of thousands of dollars unless students attain marketable skills. Yet, as a solution to the problem of employment, specialisation is misconceived. As automation threatens jobs, specialist skills (intellectual as well as manual) will prove particularly vulnerable. Take the case of software engineers. Silicon Valley outsourced many such jobs to India, which propelled the expansion of the Indian middle class. Recently, however, IT companies have laid off software engineers in droves, with one report indicating that firms increasingly need those who specialise in more advanced technologies such as “artificial intelligence, cloud [computing], big data analytics [and] robotic process automation”. The twist, however, is that AI is now able to programme software. Engineers working on it are in essence creating their own digital replacements.

In one study that Epstein cites, researchers concluded that although specialists did earn a somewhat better salary than generalists immediately after college, “later specializers made up for the head start by finding work that better fit their skills and personalities”. Even a behemoth such as the US military is learning to adapt, replacing a rigid system of early specialisation for West Point graduates with a wider range of career choices. Academic institutions should strive to be at least as flexible as the army.

James Flynn, renowned for his discovery of the “Flynn effect”, by which IQ scores increase from generation to generation, laments the provincialism of most academic majors. He designed a test for critical thinking and gave it to students in various disciplines. Most proved unable to apply critical thinking skills outside their own narrowly delimited field. Economics majors fared the best; students in business, biology, psychology, English and neuroscience floundered when they encountered questions outside their bailiwick. As most students end up in jobs not directly related to their majors, such limitations pose a serious problem.

Innovation usually flows from a confluence of disparate knowledge banks. Take Claude Shannon, the electrical engineer who helped to usher in the Information Age. To fulfil an undergraduate requirement, Shannon took a philosophy course in which he learned Boolean logic; then, during a summer internship at AT&T Bell Labs, as Epstein tells it, “he recognized that he could combine telephone routing-technology with Boole’s logic system to encode and transmit any type of information electronically. It was the fundamental insight on which computers rely.” If Shannon had not taken a philosophy course in college, the history of communications would have had a different trajectory. As faculty and administrators redesign curricula to equip students with practical skills, they should keep Shannon’s example firmly in mind – as Epstein documents in detail, it is scarcely unique.

To his credit, Epstein acknowledges in the book’s second half that generalists need specialists to flourish – to choose between specialists and generalists is thus a false choice. Nonetheless, we in academia need to design curricula in ways that foster the development of both. The balance is currently tilted in favour of specialists, creating what Epstein calls “intellectual archipelagoes” that hinder progress in all fields of enquiry.

Randy Robertson is an associate professor in the department of English and creative writing at Susquehanna University, Pennsylvania.

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World
By David Epstein
Macmillan and Penguin US
352pp, £20.00 and £14.49
ISBN 9781509843497 and 9780593084496
Published 27 June 2019


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