Overspecialization endangers academic freedom?

Another perspective to see overspecialization

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Recently, I stumbled upon an article “ Generalize, don’t specialize: why focusing too narrowly is bad for us” from the Guardian, adapted from a book “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World” written by David Epstein. Why I was interested in this article is because the author shared the same viewpoint with me but approached it differently. As an investigative reporter, by examining the world’s most successful athletes, artists, musicians, inventors, forecasters and scientists, David discovered that in most fields — especially those that are complex and unpredictable –generalists, not specialists, are primed to excel1. Setting aside the definition of success, this observation well meshes with my intuition from mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy. In mindfulness, we train people to have a proper focus on breath, that is, focusing on the sensation arising from breathing and maintaining the awareness of the breath circle: in-breath, pause, out-breath, pause. People are prone to overfocus, where awareness is lost or distorted; and to under focus, where the concentration is lacking. The nature of mind reveals the tendency to overspecialize in a mindless state (as opposed to a mindful state, which one has to cultivate with efforts). It is not surprising that the current academia is fraught with overspecialization since most people are not trained yet to be mindful, that’s it, academia is rather mindless in general.

To make it clear, “generalist” means someone with in-depth knowledge in several different fields or activities. “Generalist” is very different from “Jack of all trades, master of none”, which stresses the superficial understanding or knowledge. To my limited observation, it is not difficult to find a Jack in the daily life, but generalist is a rarity; ironically, it is easy to mistake a Jack for a generalist, because the boundary is not always clear. In this article, I would like to talk about the problem of overspecialization in academia and the importance of academic freedom.

It is easy to overfocus, according to the nature of mind; when we zoom out the time spectrum, overfocus becomes overspecialization. It is a mental trap to some extent, and unfortunately but unsurprisingly, academia is in that trap as well. Current academia should be grateful to overspecialization. Thanks to overspecialization, it is easy to demarcate and carreerize academia. Thanks to overspecialization, we have an academic system based on judgment and hierarchy, and the perfect publication ecosystem. Thanks to overspecialization, philosophy seems redundant, and we can carry out research more technically and mechanically without considering assumptions and mental models. Thanks to overspecialization, we have numerous academic communities where people are sharing a similar illusion and enhance each other in one way or another. Thanks to overspecialization, we keep doing, doing, doing for what? — what’s the meaning of doing this? At some point, people have to think about this question to untangle their spiritual confusion.

As David said, “Everyone is digging deeper into their own trench and rarely standing up to look in the next trench over, even if the solution to their problem happens to reside there.” If everyone keeps digging, when can we reach the bottom? Many people cannot face the thought of this philosophical question, but we have to think because we could not keep digging like this. When it comes to Buddhist philosophy, overspecialization has to meet emptiness eventually, that’s, a lack of inherent existence in essence.

Overspecialization always corresponds to narrow-mindedness, because people are trapped in their deep trench, and others' trenches are becoming unimaginable to them. This leads to a very similar reality shared by people from different trenches. David said, “highly credentialed experts can become so narrow-minded that they actually get worse with experience, even while becoming more confident (a dangerous combination). “. Those sorts of people don’t seem to be in the minority, and it is indeed a dangerous combination because it leads to arrogance, especially the arrogance of power, which contributes to the prevalent academic misconduct, sabotage intimidation and bullying behaviours.

In such an academic environment, generalists are actually in danger. They can think out of the box, connect things from different “trenches” and propose fantastic but unusual ideas, which could not be understood and judged adequately by those narrow-minded people. Generalists have more diverse realities than specialists. Generalists can easily challenge the current mental structure and judge system of academia. If academic freedom cannot be genuinely safeguarded, generalists have a high chance to encounter unfairness, like exclusion, intimidation, discrimination, misunderstanding, abuse of power, and so on. They have to go through hardship and many mental challenges, which are not a bad thing to gain wisdom but may not be necessary. To some extent, as outliers of the current academia, generalists can be associated with the LGBT group. Only true freedom can guarantee equality.

What is true freedom? A robust law may guarantee the external freedom, but true freedom comes from within when one could embrace everything, which is, of course, a mental skill that can be cultivated, like, through mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy. To defend the academic values and freedom, we need real leaders, not those just craving for power. They have to be compassionate, open-minded, courageous and mindful to be able to handle the mental game. If possible, they need to be generalists. However, overspecialization has affected academia for generations, compounded by the long-term lack of proper philosophical education in mental skills, and the narrow-mindedness as a consequence is deep-seated. In this situation, generalist leaders are never easy to come by. In this regard, true academic freedom is in great danger.

Up to this point, it seems that overspecialization puts academic freedom in danger, though the actual situation is more complicated. Anyway, all the issues come from the human mind. To solve these problems, we have to awaken to the nature of mind first. That’s why we need mindfulness.

  1. quoted from Goodreads ↩︎

Philosopher, Doer, Generalist, Zen Mindfulness Meditator, Mathematician, PhD Candidate

When the self comes to a stop, truth simply makes its appearance.

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