The dilemma of being Jack


  • Education
  • Sunday, 02 Aug 2020

THE aphorism, “Jack of all trades, master of none” has a negative connotation. It refers to one who is competent in many subjects or skills, but excels at nothing.

But generalists are saviours in critical situations when ideas and feedback are needed to present a holistic picture of a venture.

They are masters of integration as in theory and practice, they know more than enough to amalgamate their disciplines and knowledge to make a project work in a practical world.

They are polymaths and should be recognised as exceptional individuals whose expertise and knowledge span a significant number of different subject areas.

Robert Anson Heinlein, a science fiction writer, who was among the influential and controversial authors of the genre in his time, had this to say on specialisation: “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, design a building, conn a ship, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve an equation, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, programme a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialisation is for insects.”

In academia, a specialist wants to associate with a field in which his opinion will be sought. Specialisation creeps up whenever an academic applies for a promotion, especially for a professorship. He has to prove his specialisation in a field to be associated with the professorship title. Being a Jack of all trades will not help him for the coveted post as he is not a specialist.

Many are pushing to specialise in a single area to make them more marketable and employable. Without a doubt, specialists will always be needed in any industry. Unlike in the corporate world where the generalists will take over the upper ranks of the hierarchy; in academia, one needs to be a specialist as one rises in the rank.

But academics who are generalists are useful when there are classes left unattended by those who left for greener pastures or for sabbatical leave, and replacements are hard to come by.

An academic who is a generalist brings much-needed balance to the team or organisation he works for and eases communication across disciplines.

Curiosity gets the better of generalists. They love exploring new fields. Though they may not like all of them, they nevertheless enjoy the process of learning about them. Many things interest them so if they are forced to stick to a single specialty, they could be bored.

Their curiosity leads them to bounce from one subject to another to seek the best possible answers. That gives them satisfaction.

In all probability, Jack may regret his all-rounded contribution in many fields through research, opinions, writings and involvement in organising and overseeing the many activities at varsity. For him to specialise now may be too late as his application for professorship comes late in his academic career. Besides, he has many fields to choose from.

Being a “Jack of all trades” implies that one only has surface knowledge and not the expertise needed to be good in a single field of which the professorship will be conferred.

Surely the strong contributions by generalists should be considered for a reward alongside the specialists. And the best reward is a promotion.

To the specialists, the generalists or renaissance men or women are mere amateurs.

So is it really bad to be a generalist? Have the critics of generalists not heard of Zhang Heng, Omar Khayyam, Leonardo Da Vinci, Galileo Galilei, Sir Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison or Rabindranath Tagore? Few would argue they should have stuck to one subject. Think of the body of knowledge they have contributed in various fields.

Yes, the generalists today are not on par with these polymaths but their flexibility, adaptability, willingness to learn and problem solving skills are invaluable assets. It makes their contribution meaningful because they know exactly what is needed to enable a team to accomplish an objective.

So, having a generalist around is truly an advantage. But alas “Jack”, a professorial post is only for the specialists. DR ARZMI YAACOB

Retired academic

Shah Alam, Selangor

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