Bright Simons of Imani Ghana and founder of the Ghana-based mPedigree Network wrote this on his Facebook page in June. I have been meaning to post this here ever since. So, here you go…
One of the lamentations one hears very often in Ghana is that we have too many dilettantes, all-knowing know-nothings, running amok all over the place, hopping from radio station to radio station, TV talkshow to TV talkshow, miseducating the masses with their weak understanding of technical issues, lack of discernible track record in any proper discipline or career, and general poor education.
Added to this worry is the concern that somehow ‘specialisation’ is on the decline, and that the country is flooded with ‘jacks-of-all-trades’ mumbling half-baked dross to a clueless media and an even more clueless population.
Though this is a widespread view, there is by no means only a single version of the view, even if the underlying sentiment is almost always the same. Another angle to it is that Ghana actually does have a decent number of very competent specialists in a significant range of disciplines, and that they have either been driven out of the public sphere by loud, quarrelsome, noisemakers, or that they are too wrapped up in their consultancies and careers to give a hoot about public debate, public education or civil discourse.
Whichever the version one prefers the point remains the same: Ghana is being miseducated and misinformed by generalists, and should either grow/develop more specialists and/or create more room for those already in the system to flourish. The point is perhaps even more poignant because it is a global one. Not too long ago the author Andrew Keen wrote the ‘Cult of the Amateur’, in which he forcefully decried the growth of a ‘culture of shallowness’ in the West, blameable in large part on social media, the internet, and a festering TIY (think-it-yourself) culture. He called for a return to greater depth.
This is a reasonable call, perhaps an urgent one. But we need to be careful of the nuances.
Firstly, while specialists remain critical to any true progress in any of the technical domains so vital to our development – engineering, medicine, accounting, crop science, animal husbandry, carpentry, and child psychology, to name a few, the challenge is that these domains nowadays express themselves within complex, multi-disciplinary, areas of action: infrastructure, health, agronomics, interior design, human development, etc.
The development of countries, and human progress in general, have, as processes, become MULTI-DISCIPLINARY. But, even more critically, they have also become INTER-DISCIPLINARY.
So rather than just the more familiar approach of, for example, mixing ‘medicine’, ‘epidemiology’, ‘psychology’, biostatistics, bioinformatics, etc to create a broader super-discipline called ‘public health’ to cover connected fields of knowledge, we are now seeing more complex combinations in the attempt to tackle some rather amorphous challenges. For instance, we are witnessing more and more the attempt to develop experts in such areas such as ‘military ethics’, ‘human security’ and ‘health finance’. This can get rather curious rather quickly.
Would a hedge fund manager, whose investment vehicle specialises solely in acquiring equity in ‘health management organisations’, or an analyst for Moody’s (a rating agency) focussing on pension funds for health workers be regarded as ‘health finance experts’? Such an individual may know quite a lot about the intricacies of financing certain institutions or systems critical to healthcare delivery, but his or her actual specialty may be far from healthcare itself. Someone looking for a ‘healthcare financing expert’ may not think of either of these two people. Just as someone thinking about an ‘elections integrity expert’ is unlikely to think about a serialisation or document security expert, though in the current electoral dispute in Ghana, much hinges on security printing and document forensics.
But this is too easy.
Actually, the trickiest nuances concern the emergence of COMPLETELY NEW FIELDS OF KNOWLEDGE that leave everyone scrambling to determine which existing specialties will advance the new field the most. ‘Carbon market policy’ is an interesting area. It is far from clear whether environmental economists, geo-informatics experts, or industrial policy experts will make the grand breakthroughs needed to design the right frameworks for the optimal functioning of such markets. It may even well be entrepreneurs who are skilled in bringing together the right mixture of as yet indeterminate skills. But the truth is that we are in uncharted waters. It takes humility for experts of all shades to unlearn and relearn in order to apply the best skills in their repertoire, borrowing liberally from other disciplines as they chug along. And that is even assuming that ‘climate change marginalisers’, who tend to be political activists, rather than disciplinarian experts, are not the ones who will end laughing at everyone else who took the subject too seriously.
It is all too easy to say that the answer is in ‘teams of specialists from multiple disciplines’ working to a common objective. Quite often generalists are critical in thinking across the ‘lines of difference’ astride these multiple disciplines and are essential in multi-disciplinary teams. Entrepreneurs and visionaries are good examples of the generalists conceiving the new reality THAT THEN DEMANDS the precise mix of specialists required.
The second point is that history is replete with specialists missing big breakthroughs in their own spheres of knowledge application because they often think too deep but not broad enough. That is, they fail to appreciate the full implications a broadening line of inquiry could have on their limited focus. Why did it have to take Henry Ford to create the modern automobile industry? Or Thomas Edison to create the modern electrical grid? What were the experts in the great citadels of learning in Berlin, Munich and Boston doing? Busy drilling down perhaps.
Indeed, historically, the ‘public intellectual’ was a man of many parts. Even when not actual polymaths, they often showed a breadth of interest rarely encountered today. Imhotep, the Ancient Egyptian royal Advisor, was an Architect, engineer, physician, and religious maven. Isaac Newton was both a theologian and a physicist. Benjamin Franklin was both an optician and a literary genius. Paul Robeson, the African American musician, was also an athlete and a lawyer. In our own time, Ray Kurzweil has proved adept at philosophy, musicology, artificial intelligence, and computer optics.
And at any rate, can a society break-through a long-standing problem that has defied generations of specialists without the disruptive input of visionaries of a generalist persuasion? Without, for instance, people who can perceive the connections across anthropology, heuristics, psychology, software development, neuroscience, and hieroglyphics as they think through the best kind of interfaces for making natural language processing more accessible to the masses, or social media websites more friendly to illiterate farmers in Kete Krakyi who have never seen a clock in their lives?
Very often, a complex knot in one discipline is unravelled because someone saw an uncanny resemblance to a model in a distant discipline, such as the eureka moment that is sparked when an origami enthuasist sees a genetic nano-structure under the electron microscope that seems to unfurl from the world of her other passion.
Lastly, there are more late bloomers than we may think: people who take quite a while before narrowing down on a subject worth their passion. These people may throw themselves into multiple disciplines, even make seminal advances in these fields, before settling on the one grand choice, if they ever settle at all. A society that frowns on dilettantes of this sort will simply stifle the creativity of many of its best minds. Imagine if Leonardo da Vinci had been compelled to stick only to mechanical flying objects – no Mona Lisa. Or if Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah had been confined to theology, because that is the academic discipline that occupied him most intensely – no Conscienscism.
Specialists are important. But so are generalists. As Chinua Achebe once said, ‘in a great man’s house, no matter what drums are played, there is always someone to dance to the music.” Any call for a provincial, narrow-minded, population would be an attempt to drive people from the reality of a complex world in which we will soon need to make laws to mediate between machines that can think, regenerate and perhaps even learn to be autonomous, and ordinary humans.
The ‘lawyers’, ‘politicians’, ‘economists’ etc. needed in such a society need to be more than merely ‘cybernetic law specialists’ and ‘sentient warfare policy experts’. They need to be able to draw on the history of slavery, the Foucauldian sociology of power, Asimovian-Turing model of agency, and novel psychological concepts of Personhood, not to talk of completely different techniques of forensic engineering and crime science.
Simply put, it would be a call to deny the growing complexity of a post-industrial world, in which the intense specialisation justified by the industrial revolution no longer provide a complete rationale for how to educate and keep a new kind of professional fulfilled in a professional career. And in a fast globalising world, there is little point in saying our problems here are much narrower. In fact, they are even more unwieldy since we often need to translate other people’s breakthroughs into our own unique environment, a process that requires insights not just into multiple disciplines, but also into multiple cultures.
The real problem we need to grapple with in Ghana is that of mediocre specialists and even more mediocre generalists. If the Jacks-of-all-trades appear not to be adding any value, or appear incapable of illuminating the gaps between seemingly divergent fields of knowledge and inquiry, it is only because the specialists – the town planners, utility engineers, public finance bureaucrats, criminal justice professionals, and meteorologists, to name a few, – are in the same boat with them, clueless. How can generalists assist in the inter-disciplinary process when there is little by way of advances in the specialist domains to combine and re-combine? And let us not kid ourselves, we have the biggest university population we have ever had in our history, all of whom are presumably being instructed in various specialties. If the output seems somewhat bland, then it is bland all the way through, generalist or specialist.
I must repeat: the problem with the intellectual climate in Ghana is mediocrity, not generalism.
—- Me, Loyal Constituent, Facebook South
“One of the distinguishing traits of the intellectual is, to varying extents, that he or she is a generalist, at home with all manner of subject matter: Moynihan had thoughts about American inner cities, Cold War alliances, and everything in between.”
—- Marc Tracy, Writer, The New Republic