Roussseau Was Wrong

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about specialists and how they fit into our society.  First off, I consider myself a generalist.  I always have been.  I enjoy knowing a little bit about a lot of things so that I may understand the big picture and how everything fits into the system.  For example, I am more interested in having a basic understanding of how the clock works (cogs work with each other to make the hands tick along) than in understanding the specifics (which cog operates what and how they are each calibrated).

As a generalist, I see a need for folks who are specialists.  Although I understand the importance of and the basic ideas of how a clock works, I would need a watchmaker or clock maker to explain the intricacies to me and fix the clock should it break.  Which brings me to Rousseau.

While undergoing my studies at Michigan State University in the Political Theory and Constitutional Democracy program, we had one fabulous professor, Curtis Stokes, who taught mostly about Rousseau.   The first paper we had to write for this class was a discussion of Rousseau’s First Discourse.  In this discourse (forgive me, it’s been 7-10 years since I read it), Rousseau criticizes the modern day (around 1780) for having too many specialists.  Rousseau saw specialization as dehumanizing and chided folks for labeling themselves as Mathematicians, Chemists, or Engineers.

I still understand the argument, but I find Rousseau’s criticism too harsh today.  Today, I see a need for having people who specialize in things like IT, or grants, or coaching.  As a generalist, someone who embraces the big picture but also recognizes the importance of the tiny details, I cherish those who can explain the intricacies of a thing, like IT, and own their operations.  Specialists are so integral to our society… how would we survive without mechanics, phone repair, home repair, or food specialists?  Not to mention those who ensure our good health – MDs, ODs, Chiropractors, Pharmacy experts, etc.

Perhaps what is important about Rousseau’s complaint is the place where we label ourselves after our professions… when it leaks into introductions, like, “Hi, my name is Michelle and I am a generalist.”  Well, a ‘generalist’ is one small caveat to my being.  I am also a mother, a sister, a daughter, and a wife.  I am an amateur artist, web-designer, web-manager, project manager, and an author.  I am a graduate and a student of life.  All these labels and more describe me.  My brother calls me a hippie and my husband calls me a liberal Democrat.  I call myself just me.  I am.  But, I am one who appreciates these specialities and the desire to label ourselves after our specialities.  After all, many of us have been schooled and have years of experience that help to define that which defines us.