A lively discussion erupted at The Passive Voice about the validity of Heinlein’s famous passage from “The Notebooks of Lazarus Long” about generalization:
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
Robert A. Heinlein
Which led to an intriguing rebuttal in the comments, pointing to Adam Smith’s emphasis on specialization in The Wealth of Nations and its importance to a healthy economy and efficient production. The discussion got a touch warm in the comments section.
I think it comes down to the question of applying Heinlein’s idea to an individual or to society. For the individual, I firmly believe that having a broad range of knowledge and skills is beneficial, and possibly life saving if not for you than for someone else. Granted, the character in the book who is speaking is older than Methuselah, and has had time and the need to learn all those skills and more, but look at what Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts used to be required to learn before they aged out of the programs. If you have a wide knowledge base, and skill base, I think you are better prepared for when life knocks you sideways and you have to re-group and possibly head in a different career direction or life-path.
However, is that best for the economy and society as a whole? There is indeed value in specialization, both at the level of assembly work and manufacture (as Smith argues most famously in the pin-makers passage), and at the level of regional markets. Why should London not have more pin makers, and Scotland more sheep-raisers? Scotland had land and a declining population of people, with lots and lots of sheep (1760s-70s), while London had lots and lots of people who could do piece work and thus earn a living at a relatively unskilled task. It was far more efficient to send wool to London in exchange for mass-made pins and other goods, and far cheaper for all parties (so long as sea-trade remained viable), than for the Scots to try to make pins for themselves and for Londoners to raise sheep in the public parks. Today, in the 2010s, we see similar specialization from places with lots of people and intellectual capital as compared to places with natural resources and physical capital. Or we did, until the ‘Internet and other related forces threw a joker into the deck.
I’m becoming a specialist of sorts, focusing on teaching and writing stories, some of which happen to be made up from borrowed elements, and others of which are taken from primary source documents (aka History). My new skills are related to that specialty, at least for the moment. With the exception of improving my shooting skills and the like. This is necessary for my employment (Day Job and writing fiction) and because not everyone has the skills or the desire to teach history. I’m no longer working on airplanes, or flying airplanes, or spending as much time hiking in the back of beyond and maintaining my orienteering skills, or crocheting, or hunting (squirrels on the birdfeeder excepted).
I depend on other people with specialized training to keep my pick-up in shape, although I do know how to change the tires, change the oil, and basic trouble shooting of the mechanical kind. The electronics? Pah. Electronics have always been my weak area, and automotive computers are no different. I’d rather trouble-shoot hydraulics, thankyouverymuch. I depend on specialized physicians for things like the Year of the Dentist, my joint problems, and other stuff.
However, many of those physicians and mechanics have outside hobbies and interests, including hunting, fishing, ranching, car-racing, playing classical music, flying planes, video games, carpentry, stamp-collecting, and the like. And I wager a number have served in the military, or have basic first-aid training, and other skills.
Adam Smith was right on the macro level – specialization is important for trade and providing more goods less expensively to more people. Lazarus Long was right when he referred to individuals and their survival, and their intellectual development. One of the greatest problems we have in the West, according to several researchers and psychologists, and one that is contributing to things like mass drug addiction and crime in the inner cities in the US, is boredom. People have nothing to do. Their jobs are dull and nothing exists outside of them. Or they have no jobs, and the government provides everything needed – except mental stimulation and things of interest and a decent education. There are no longer any challenges other than challenging other people (crime). When that’s not available, or the individual doesn’t want to go that route, why not tune into chemical bliss? It eases physical pain and spiritual and mental pain as well, at least as long as the high continues.
As I said over at PG’s place, I’m very, very lucky. I had the opportunities to learn a lot of things, and was forced at various times to make use of those skills. Today, few people seem to have those chances or teachers. Misplaced ideals encouraged schools to eliminated vocational training and everyone hammers “go to college! Get a STEM job,” even as they decry the lack of skilled trades. The dignity of skill and of having multiple baskets for one’s eggs has been devalued over the past 40 years or so.
Who is correct? Smith or Heinlein? I think the answer is yes. Individuals should learn a lot of skills, perhaps not as their primary task – I want a focused neurosurgeon and plumber. Society needs specialists and people who do one part of much larger jobs. But society also does well when people have a range of outlets for their interests, and a range of skills that they can use if the need ever arises.
*For those unfamiliar with Adam Smith, he is considered the father of modern economics and a strong proponent of laissez-faire, meaning minimal government involvement in trade and manufacturing and other things. He was also a very clear writer, and On the Wealth and Poverty of Nations is still an excellent work. It is available on-line from a number of sources, as well as being in print.
Edited to add: Welcome, Instapundit readers! Thanks for stopping by.