Specialization



At any given time I’m usually reading a mix of books from my local library library and from my personal book collection. The library books I borrow tend to be lighter and more ephemeral – popular science, for example – while the books I collect tend toward the serious and intense – history, biography.

Since the libraries have been closed I’ve been reading from my personal collection. Two or three years ago I found a book about R. Buckminster Fuller at my favorite book store in Tulsa, Gardner’s. Buckminster Fuller’s Universe is less of a biography and more of a philosophical study, or even a hagiography, written by an acolyte of Fuller’s, Lloyd Steven Siedens. I’ve been interested in Fuller since I first learned about him in high school, from Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus! Trilogy, of all places.

The book has been thought-provoking. Here is a passage I read last night, about Fuller’s time in the U.S. Navy during World War I:

“Fuller’s multiplex naval education was diametrically opposed to the popular notion of education prevalent throughout land-based institutions and other military organizations. At that time, large universities were creating specialized programs in which the brightest people were selected from undergraduate programs and educated as specialists in individualized fields.”

“Bucky closely examined that aspect of education and found that the people who dominated power structures, whether land-oriented or nautical, had always attempted to maintain as comprehensive a perspective as possible while keeping the general public divided and specialized. He felt that that strategy of ‘divide and conquer’ had been successful for thousands of years and had been perpetuated through the support of universities.”

“Fuller witnessed institutions of higher learning singling out the students with tremendous potential. Those were the people who could most easily perceive and utilize the comprehensive knowledge retained within the power structures, and the power structures did as much as they could to keep those students from appreciating and using that knowledge. Bucky believed that such naturally gifted students were coerced with incentives of money and fame into specialized fields, where they would not be interested in or have access to comprehensive knowledge and perspectives. The handful of people in power could then combine and employ the new discoveries made by university-trained specialists to realize even more domination and wealth.”

Around the same time in high school I was reading the Illuminatus! Trilogy I was also reading the novels of Robert Heinlein. Like many teenage boys I found characters like Jubal Harshaw, Heinlein’s “competent man”, deeply appealing:

“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, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

The Fuller mythos is that he was the competent man of the 20th century, someone with ideas for every essential field as well as the ability to implement them.