Memoirs of a Wide-Eyed Generalist
When did we take up the habit of calling everything a crisis? Now 45, I cannot remember a time when both the world and the United States were not beset by several apparent crises, among them the persistent notion that the U.S. educational system-and our youth along with it-have been relentlessly failing and at risk. In my younger years, one crisis was that the increased sophistication of the society, and of science in particular, was creating a nation of specialists.
I don't recall what the horrible consequences of this error were supposed to be. Perhaps they related to our fears of nuclear holocaust: Specialists were now capable of developing terrible weapons and there would be nary a generalist to control their use?
Young even for my meager years, and finding myself interested in all sorts of occupations and fields of knowledge, I took this crisis to heart. I can't say that I experienced a religious conversion or even made an explicit decision; but I felt buoyed by the idea that I was going to be one of the generalists the world required. At Vassar and Berkeley I studied history, fiction-writing, ballet, and foreign languages, taking a break to experience factory life, assembling fiberglass filters and repairing machines that made electronic parts. Upon getting my degree, I became a carpenter, reporter, government manager, novelist, transportation planner, and United Nations "language officer."
The experiences I have had along the way, ideas stumbled upon, the people I have gotten to know-are so much a part of my life that it would be absurd to wonder: What if I had specialized? (What if I had grown up in Brazil?)
I don't think I was ever so naïve as to expect the world to offer me the job of Generalist, $100,000 per year. I am sure, though, there were times when I imagined that the world would come to honor and take care of me because of the breadth of my experiences and interests. After all, this is what society wanted: generalists. Though I would be embarrassed to dig them up, I'm sure that in more than a few job application cover letters I suggested that my being a true generalist was reason enough to hire me as a policy analyst, foundation officer, foreign correspondent, private-school teacher.
Naturally, there were a lot of jobs I didn't get. Interviewers would tell me, "You seem like a very bright and interesting young man . . ." After a decade or so, it occurred to me that this was a polite way of saying "No." How bright could I be if I didn't realize that you don't get to be a foreign correspondent without either powerful connections or long years working late, chasing down your editors' story ideas, accepting their revisions, and laughing at their jokes?
It has occurred to me that were I now to go to heaven to see the former foundation presidents, educational leaders, and magazine columnists who briefly expressed such concern about our nation of specialists, these dignitaries would be more astonished than saddened by my not-very-tragic careering. Perhaps they would point out that a generalist was not necessarily a dabbler, nor vice versa. They might also try to gently suggest that-my charming modesty notwithstanding-I had yet to take the full measure of my ignorance. "Back then we thought it important to call attention to the need for generalists precisely because they were in disfavor," I hear them telling me. "It is somewhat surprising now to come face to face with someone who took our call as an indication that he might succeed, or even triumph, by bucking the trend."
Pulling me aside, one of the wisest and most wizened might whisper in my ear, "A society only comes to define an ideal for itself when there is an aspect of its nature that it wishes it could change or ignore. We like to say that while we don't always live up to our ideals, they light the way, helping us to progress. This may be so, but you would do well to keep in mind one of the other features of such a beam: As it illuminates what lies ahead, it leaves in greater darkness those who hold the lamp or follow behind."
William Warner works as a translator in New York and is at work on a book of essays.