Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Losing the significance amid hyper-specialties

Portland, Maine Lynne V. Cheney is nothing if not outspoken. But then, why shouldn't she be? As chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities - an independent federal agency whose $140 million budget flows largely into grants to scholars, colleges, museums, and libraries - she's charged with supporting the study of those things that make us human. And what's more human than speaking one's mind? On her mind these days is the problem of overspecialization. She touched on it in her latest report, ``Humanities in America,'' released in September. She expanded on her ideas in a conversation during a visit to Portland earlier this month. Her concern: the tendency of researchers, in the humanities and elsewhere, to focus on ever-narrower issues, to say more and more about less and less, and to write books that should have remained mere footnotes.

``I do not, of course, mean there should be no specialized research,'' she protests, rebuffing those who saw her report as the bugle call to destroy all things deep and detailed. ``Specialized research has done much that is valuable,'' she asserts. ``The problem is hyper-specialization.''

About these ads

That problem, says Mrs. Cheney, arises from one of today's central challenges: the unprecedented growth of knowledge.

The human response to that challenge takes two forms. The first is a shrinking of the vision. ``Because you can't master everything,'' she notes, ``people are mastering narrower and narrower portions of the whole.''

That can bring rewards: Becoming an expert produces an intense sense of authority. But it also brings dangers. To know only fragments is to miss the relation of part to whole, to overlook the broad significance of the finely detailed.

But the information glut also produces another, quite opposite, response: a concentration on what Cheney calls ``process'' at the expense of content. One example, she notes, occurs in some college English curricula, which substitute the study of communication theory - how people say things - for the study of what they have actually said through works of literature.

Again, that brings rewards: There's much to be said for learning to communicate. The dangers, however, are evident: a vacancy of the heart right where the world's best literature should be, and a frustration of the spirit that longs to communicate but has little to say.

Cheney's conclusions arise from looking at the fields of literature, history, philosophy, and the other humanities. But she's really talking about a universal problem: the lack of broad, comprehensive thinking all across society.

Mention that lack out loud, however - as she regularly does - and the hackles of vested interests start rising. The universities, the professions, the arts, the health-care world, many areas of business - wherever you turn, the specialties are entrenched.

About these ads

There is, it almost seems, a conspiracy either to pursue narrowness or to discuss process - one the opposite, and the other the counterfeit, of real comprehensiveness. The former would idolize footnote-mongering and expert knowledge. The latter would ignore content in pursuit of theory.

Real comprehensiveness does neither - though, in a sense, it builds on both. Based in individual fields of study, it seeks a wider, more radical vision. Respecting various methodologies, it rises above the squabbling of the specialties. Drawing on multiplicity, it constantly unifies. Aware of vast numbers of models, it uncovers a handful of all-embracing paradigms.

Why does that matter? For one simple reason. Our age, we proudly assert, is one of vast change. Yet somehow we expect change to limit itself conveniently to the physical world - or, at most, to the supply of ideas we think about.

It won't. Real change, if the 21st century is to be successful, will come in our ways of thinking. It will move us away from the specialized and toward the comprehensive. Cheney's got it right: The sooner we rise above the hyper-specialties, the sooner we'll see significance where others see only footnotes. A Monday column

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.