Today I want to speak to you about a topic that was discussed in a course I took this summer at Gothenburg University (GU). The lecturer, a professor emeritus by the name of Guy Heyden is somewhat of an embodiment of the generalist concept. He’s been active in more fields than I can pronounce, spanning everything from pathology, anthropology, histology, dentistry to sociology and oral health. Today’s article stems from the lectures that he delivered at GU a few weeks ago.

As usual, feel free to comment whether you agree or disagree your feedback is always appreciated.

Be generalists, even if you are specialists

Today we live in a global society with global issues. In such a community one can no longer cling myopically to the same approach when it comes to education. We are no longer in need of specialists but rather generalists. People familiar with several different disciplines and therefore develop a deeper and more holistic picture of the issues that arise.

What I call for is hardly a revolutionary idea, but rather a mindset that was dominant during the era of the renaissance. Rarely were the academics of that day familiar with only one topic, instead they chose to have a finger in many different areas. Sir Isaac Newton not only produced masterpieces within the fields of mathematics and physics. He was also a philosopher, astronomer and sat for a shorter period in the British Parliament. Similar generalist tendencies were to be found in almost every other scholar of that period which is illustrated by men such as Copernicus, Leibniz or Jöns Jacob Berzelius.

Another example of someone in more recent times is perhaps Sweden’s best known poet and writer, August Strindberg, who not only mastered the literary arts but was also deeply active in the natural sciences (especially chemistry), theater, art, politics and economics. A tradition that stretches far beyond the western renaissance.

In the Middle Ages we find in the Islamic world several examples of polymaths who mastered several different disciplines. Al-Khwarizmi for instance was a man who is best known for his masterpiece Al-Jabr (Algebra) where he for the first time introduced systematic solutions to linear and quadratic equations. However he did not limit himself to mathematics but was also known for his contributions in areas such as geography and astronomy.

A more prominent example of the polymaths of this era was Ibn al-Haytham (al-Hazen) who besides having been the first who defined the scientific method also was involved in optics, medicine, astronomy, physics, ophthalmology, psychology, anatomy and the engineering sciences.
Finally, we would like to say that it is time for us to stop enclosing ourselves into a particular area and hence miss the greater picture. What we should do instead is put on the generalist’s glasses and thus be able to look further than we previously imagined.

“It is wise to have decisions of great moment monitored by generalists. Experts and specialists lead you quickly into chaos. They are a source of useless nit-picking, the ferocious quibble over a comma. The mentat-generalist, on the other hand, should bring to decision-making a healthy common sense.” – Frank Herbert in Dune