It is true that in the past, both in China and in the West, a “humane” education did involve an undesirable degree of specialization, because it concentrated on the study of a set of works of literature that had been canonized as being “classical”. I myself had as thorough a grounding in the Greek and Latin Classics as my Chinese contemporaries had in the Confucian “classics”. (In China, the competitive examination in the classics for candidates for the civil service was discontinued in 1905. In Britain, the civil service examiners continued to give an excessive reward to proficiency in the Greek and Latin classics down to 1914, if not till a later date.) But a truly humane education need not be, and should not be, exclusively, or even mainly, “classical”. It should include a study of all the greatest works of literature that the human race has produced so far (students will have to study most of these in translation). It should also include a study of the visual arts and music, which can reach all eyes and ears without being checked by the barrier of differences of language. Above all, a humane education should include a study of all the higher religions and philosophies.
At the present time, however, the tendency is towards a far higher degree of specialization than was ever involved in the old-fashioned Chinese or Western “classical” education. Why do people specialize so minutely nowadays, and what problems does specialization create? This is a rather personal question for me, because I have been involved, unexpectedly and reluctantly, in a certain amount of controversy over this, as a result of my own work.
The present tendency towards aimless learning and the specialization for which it opens the way is not peculiar to scholarship; in the present-day world, specialization is characteristic of all kinds of activity. The so-called “Zeitgeist”, to use a useful German word, is very pervasive nowadays all over the World, and this makes it all the more difficult to check and overcome specialization.
In scholarship, I am very conscious of the tendency towards specialization – I would say towards over-specialization (I am showing my colours; what I have just said is controversial) – because I myself am a deliberate and determined generalist. I have encountered a certain amount of intolerance on the part of some specialists, which has surprised me by its violence, and by even, in some cases, what has appeared to be almost a personal animosity. Animosity over moral or political questions seems to me to be unfortunate, misguided, and deplorable, but animosity over intellectual questions strikes me as being ludicrous. I do not feel counter-animosity against people who differ from me on this question.
The cause of specialization is, of course, obvious. The number of things that there are to be known nowadays has increased so greatly, and the intricacy and the complicatedness of all these things has also so much increased, that there is a strong temptation to try to retain a mastery over knowledge and action by breaking up the field of action and the field of knowledge into smaller and smaller patches. The feeling is: if only I can reduce it to this tiny patch, perhaps I can master it, however full of detail it may be. But I myself believe that this is not a true solution of a problem that, no doubt, is genuine and formidable.
I think that it is not the true solution because, when a field of either knowledge or action is insulated from its setting, from its environment, this insulation is artificial and arbitrary, and therefore the attempt to study or to take action about reality within these narrow limits is bound to miscarry. Our vision of reality is distorted when we do not see each patch in its general setting; so the specialist who sees the part and not the whole does not see correctly. His view is put out of focus by being narrowed down. What is equally serious, the specialist in action does not act right, because he is acting on behalf of the part only and not the whole of the universe.
For instance, the foreign minister of one of about 140 separate states is often acting for his fraction of the human race as against all other fractions. He may act very immorally in the narrow interests of his own little country – and every country is little compared to the whole human race. To take another example, a trustee’s business in private life is to look after the interests of the person for whom he is administering a trust, and not to look after the interests of humanity. He takes a narrow view of his obligations, and often his actions are, I should say, misguided and anti-moral for this reason. We can only act really well, only see really clearly, if we act for the good of the whole and if we see the whole and what lies behind the whole of the universe.
Now we come back to the realm of scholarship, which is my concern at this point, and not the realm of action. If we were to reach a state of affairs in which specialists studied and wrote exclusively for their fellow specialists in the same field, scholarship would be discredited because it would be reduced to absurdity.
Creative work will be barren if it does not produce some valuable social effect. The thinker, artist, poet, and prophet must have a public. In the prophet’s case, this is obvious; but it is also true in other forms of creative work that the worker must give the fruits of his work to his fellow human beings in some form. If he works only for himself or only for a tiny clique of fellow specialists, his career will have been a social failure and probably a professional failure too. In any case, exhaustive knowledge is unattainable even if it is pursued by resorting to an extreme degree of specialization.
I had an old friend [Lewis Namier] who decided that he would write the history of the English Parliament. He came from another country, so he was particularly interested in this strange English institution. He decided to work in a very concrete way, by studying the individual careers of Members of Parliament. In the end he got down to studying twenty years of parliamentary history, then one year, then a few months. He did study the biographies of a considerable number of Members of Parliament over a certain number of years, but he never managed to record what these members did, what legislation they passed and what they did not pass, and the effect of their activities on the fortunes of Britain and of the World while they were Members of Parliament. He lost his way among the trees and he never saw the whole wood.
I think that here the discovery, in my lifetime, of the subconscious level of the human psyche has a lesson for us. Freud and Jung and their successors have shown us that, in the smallest fraction of time of which it is possible for the human mind to become conscious, the amount of actions and events that take place in the psyche is virtually infinite. The Irish writer, James Joyce, in his book Ulysses, attempted to set down a number of psychic actions that took place within the souls of half a dozen men and women who are the characters in his book during one period of twenty-four hours. Joyce wrote a very big book, but he himself would have agreed that the amount of his characters’ psychic action that he was able to express on paper is only a minute fraction of what actually would have passed if these fictitious characters had been real persons. What I am getting at is that the goal of exhaustive knowledge, even about what happens in the smallest period of time, is unattainable. It is a will o’ the wisp; its pursuit is a wild goose chase.
As I see it, a scholar’s public ought not to be limited to his fellow specialists. He ought to produce work that is intelligible and valuable for the non-specialist cultivated intelligent public. This is his social and cultural duty.
In simpler and smaller societies – for instance, in Japan before the introduction of Buddhism and of Chinese civilization, or in Britain before the introduction of Christianity – every member or society could do and could know practically everything that there was to be done and to be known. It was the same in Iceland before the introduction of Christianity there about the year 1000. In larger and more complex societies, each of us has to be a specialist to some extent.
Generalism is always indispensable; but, in a society in which there is a great deal of ground to be covered, generalism too has its dangers. The specialist’s vision will become distorted, but the generalist’s vision may become superficial, as the specialist often points out. I think the safeguard against both these dangers is to combine specialism in some particular field with a general knowledge of the rest of the field. A patch of specialism will keep the generalist up to standard, and a touch of generalism will save the specialist’s vision from falling out of focus. Generalism and specialism can be combined in many different proportions. Each scholar must follow his own bent in finding the proportions that suit his personal intellectual make-up. What he must take care to avoid is becoming either a specialist or a generalist exclusively.
A friend of mine has said that Toynbee’s great achievement, and also his weakness, was his grasp of the whole of history to an old-fashioned A-level standard. There was emphasis on the word “old-fashioned” as well as “whole”.
There is something in this, though he did not know all history equally. A Study of History has nothing to say about southeast Asia (Mankind and Mother Earth touches on it), and you cannot call his knowledge of the Greco-Roman world A-level, though even it has its limitations, which come from the tradition in which he was taught. Some of his work, from his first published article (On Herodotus III. 90 and VII. 75, 76, Classical Review, Vol 24, No 8, 1910) to those in Some Problems of Greek History, OUP, 1969, is so minutely specialised as to be unintelligible except by other specialists. And you could string together thousands of the best A-level essays ever written and have nothing of the majesty or sinuosity of Toynbee’s work.
Nevertheless, I know what my friend, who is a classicist, means. The passage, for example, which I quoted in a post called Marxist socialism: A page torn from a book ends with a flourish which reminds one of the flourish of a first-class, old-fashioned, A- or S-level student as he finishes a paper.
Toynbee writes a little like an autodidact, despite having had, at Winchester and Oxford, the most rigorous classical training possible. Perhaps this is because he liked to rethink things on his own. There are writers whose prose suggests deeper culture and learning than it immediately displays. Geyl is one. They tend to be more readable than Toynbee. With Toynbee, everything is revealed, laid out, and in a style “encumbered by its own wealth, like a man who loads himself with souvenirs from every resort he ever visited” (no byline, Times Literary Supplement, August 17 1956), in “long sentences – every adjective and adverb inserted, all loopholes stopped up, and nothing left to the imagination – [which] would clog the mind even if they were not further burdened with cumbrous Latinisations” (Sir Ernest Barker, Dr. Toynbee’s Study of History, International Affairs, Vol 31, London, 1955). His scholarly style is the literary equivalent of the Beaubourg: all the pipes and plumbing are on the exterior.
The style was not always cumbrous. In conversation, he was direct. The book from which I took the passage in this post is the most relaxed of the published dialogues. (It does not tell us where or when the conversations with Wakaizumi took place. The archives of the Tokyo-based Japanese-language daily in which they first appeared, Mainichi Shimbun, might shed light.)
Surviving the Future, OUP, 1971