On Being an Academic Generalist

As academics go, I am about as much a generalist as it is possible to be. First, I am in the Humanities, which unlike science are generalist by tradition; second I am a poet. Both these identifications mean that I can legitimately be interested in anything. I might be able to claim a specialist's competence in writing, but even there, I don't have a PhD in Rhetoric or Composition, but an MFA in poetry. My job is thinking about & teaching how language & the world line up, or fail to line up, with each other. Prompted by the same Michael Ignatieff essay I wrote about the other day, Timothy Burke recently commented on the proper role(s) of academic specialists in the making of policy. Mark Kleiman, while not responding directly to the Ignatieff essay, also wrote about the role of academic research & researchers in the creation of public policy. That's an interesting question, which I'll get to, but not before remarking that the Ignatieff piece seemed to me such a bit of self-serving hackwork as to make it an improbable position from which to begin a taxonomy of academic specialists, or a discussion of their social & political roles. Ignatieff's essay employed, not a rhetoric of inquiry, but a rhetoric of justification. And not just the justification of a position, but of the writer's intellectual behavior. The vampire-like way in which Ignatieff sucked the blood of Isaiah Berlin in order to make his case should appall any honest reader. Burke seems to want to give academics the benefit of the doubt in policy matters & I think his neutrality regarding the Ignatieff essay borders on fetishizing objectivity. He gives academics too much moral credit. Kleiman, on the other hand, takes an opposite approach, wishing to severely limit the moral force of specialists' voices. He gives academics too little moral credit. Both positions, ironi9cally, partake of the same reification of objectivity, critical distance, etc. The real problem for intellectuals who wish take public positions & who seek to influence public policy is the way in which narrow specialization leads to a loss of self-doubt. Such doubt is what separates the puerile Ignatieff from the towering figure of Berlin. False certainty based on narrow expertise. Generalists struggle to keep up. I speak from experience. Sometimes, a generalist has to trust instinct & honesty to make moral judgments. Neither is infallible & the generalist is no doubt given to over-valuing political passion. The generalist is too often impatient with details, but the generalist is not so subject to certainty as the specialist. After all, the specialist is often right within his domain & so expects his knowledge to be widely applicable; the generalist lacks such certainty. On balance, I would prefer that public policy be driven by generalist intellectuals like Isaiah Berlin rather than by delusional specialists like Michael Ignatieff. Mark Kleiman rightly objects to the elitism of a bunch of college professors telling people to trust their judgment because, after all, professors are smarter than everybody else, if by smarter you mean "more knowledgable." That's the sort of thing a specialist would be likely to claim, whereas an intellectual generalist is likely to be less certain about his knowledge, seeing it in a broader context of social & political practices. After the end of the American War in Vietnam, Soviet agricultural specialists installed vast irrigation projects in central Vietnam. Wet rice agriculture requires moving vast amounts of water from one place to another at precise times of the year. I don't have the details (because I am a generalist), but the result of the Russian engineers' knowledge was the silting & salting-up of many hectares of arable crop land. The older & less reliable methods had been inefficient & had sometimes led to poor harvests, but they did not destroy the land; specialist knowledge & its attendant certainty led to long-term devastation.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.