Academic specialization has its tradeoffs.
On one side, extreme specialization and focus helps to develop insights and discoveries that would otherwise be unlikely to occur. On the other side, it's possible, as the old saying goes, to know more and more about less and less until you end up knowing everything about nothing. Recognizing this tradeoff isn't a new insight, but it has rarely been addressed with more grace than by the economist Jacob Viner in a speech entitled "A Modest Proposal for Some Stress on Scholarship in Graduate Training," given at the Graduate Convocation at Brown University on June 3, 1950, and then published a few yeas later in the Quarterly Journal of Speech (February 1954, 40:1, pp. 15-23).
Viner's talk is the source of one of my own favorite comments about academic graduate training: "Men are not narrow in their intellectual interests by nature; it takes special and rigorous training to accomplish that end."
Viner is a very prominent economist who does highly specialized work, and who values the specialized work done by others. Thus, he strives to be both mild but definite in his praise of broader scholarship. He offer a number of wry observations along the way. Here's a comment on academic specialization:
This is the ever-growing specialization not only as between departments but even within departments, a specialization carried so far that very often professors within even the same department can scarcely communicate with each other on intellectual matters except through the mediation at seminars and doctoral examinations of their as yet incompletely specialized students. This development has not been capricious or without function. The growth in the accumulation of data, in the refinement and delicacy of tools for their analysis so that great application and concentration are necessary for mastery of their use, has not only ended the day of the polymath with all knowledge for his province, but seems steadily to be cutting down the number of those who would sacrifice even an inch of depth of knowledge for a mile of breadth.
Viner suggests making some room for "scholarship," by which he does not mean the addition of even more specialized work. He said:
My proposal is both sincere and modest. I give also only an old-fashioned and modest meaning to the term "scholarship." I mean by it nothing more than the pursuit of broad and exact knowledge of the history of the working of the human mind as revealed in written records. I exclude from it, as belonging to a higher order of human endeavor, the creative arts and scientific discovery. What I propose, stated briefly and simply, is that our graduate schools shall assume more responsibility than they ordinarily do, so that the philosophers,economists, mathematicians, physicists, and theologians they turn out as finished teachers, technicians, and practitioners shall have been put under some pressure or seduction to be also scholars. ...
A small place once given to scholarship, moreover, I would not object if it were then confined to its allotted space, or at least not permitted to spread without restraint into areas beyond its proper jurisdiction, where if it intrudes it steals time and other less valuable resources from what are generally acknowledged to be more important activities. A verger of a church, reproved for locking the doors of the church, replied that when they were left open it often resulted in people praying all over the place. I concede that we don't want students and faculty unrestrainedly pursuing scholarship all over our universities while they have so much more urgent business to attend to.
One virtue of scholarship is that it will help teaching, especially undergraduate teaching. Viner writes:
The graduate schools, I repeat, tend to mould their students into narrow specialists, who see only from the point of view of their subject, or of a special branch of their special subject, and fail to recognize the importance of looking even at their own subject from other than its own point of view. These students then acquire their doctoral degrees on the strength of theses which have demonstrated to the satisfaction of their supervisors that they have adequately decontaminated their minds from any influences surviving from their undergraduate training in other fields than those occupied by their chosen discipline. They then find their way back to the colleges to transmit to the next generation the graduate school version of a liberal education, or how to see the world through the eye of a needle ...
Men are not narrow in their intellectual interests by nature; it takes special and rigorous training to accomplish that end. And men who have been trained to think only within the limits of one subject, will never make teachers at the college level even in that subject. They may know exceedingly well the possibilities of that subject, but they will never be conscious of its limitations, or if conscious of them will never have an adequate motive or a good basis for judging as to their consequence or extent.
A broader virtue of scholarship, Viner argues, is that it provides a context for satisfaction with a life spent in reading, writing, and thinking:
And I plead on behalf of scholarship, not that it will save the world, although this has conceivably happened in the past and may happen again; not that it brings material rewards to the scholar, although this also may have occurred, to the scandal of his academic superiors; not that it is an invariably exciting activity, for it generally involves a great deal of drudgery ... All that I plead on behalf of scholarship, at least upon this occasion, is that, once the taste for it has been aroused, it gives a sense of largeness even to one's small quests, and a sense of fullness even to the small answers to problems large or small which it yields, a sense which can never in any other way be attained, for which no other source of human gratification can, to the addict, be a satisfying substitute, which gains instead of loses in quality and quantity and in pleasure-yielding capacity by being shared with others ....
Pride in one·s special subject is a virtue, not a vice. It is right and proper, and good to look upon, to see a tanner in love with leather and a carpenter in love with wood. But what a meager portion of the realm of the mind is covered even by the proudest single subject! If only there is the will, how much of the rich realm of the human mind lies open for invasion, for the physicist beyond, beside, and behind nuclear fission, and for the economist in regions where the circulating medium is of more precious metal than even under the gold standard!
I sometimes try to make Viner's argument, in a less graceful way by noting that academic specialization always has two functions. One is the use of specialization as a tool for research and communication about research. It would be difficult, for example, to communicate about cutting-edge research on a coronavirus vaccine without using specialized jargon. But academics are people, not just research machines, and so specialization ends up having a social dimension as well. In particular, extensive use of particular jargon and keeping up with how it changes defines a certain academic in-group, and thus can be an important tool for pure careerist purposes. Some academics find ways to move fluently between jargon and broader forums and purposes for communication--like the undergraduate classroom. Some have a harder time doing so.
A version of this article first appeared on Conversable Economist.
Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.