“You have an astonishing variety of knowledge.”

That was from one of my housemates. I’d just told him that I was preparing for an interview with an ESL school. He was confused because, as far as he knew, I was specializing in programming. (Which is funny, because I’m just beginning that madness!) I told him that nope, I also have a certification in teaching English as a Foreign Language/Second Language. He was impressed, and it got me thinking. There’s a Heinlein quote that ends with: “Specialization is for insects.”

Now, there are a ton of things that are going on in America right now – and several of them can be boiled down to a deep and severe concern that, put simply, when it comes to the future, our country is completely and utterly screwed. The “why” depends on who you ask – some would say it’s because of the Muslims. Others would say immigrants. Others would say that it’s because of people who say those kind of things. Personally, I think that our country’s got a bright future, with the caveat that we’ve got to acknowledge the importance of a broad education.

I know, I know. There’s a chorus of people who shout “WHY WOULD I EVER NEED [“algebra”, “Shakespeare”, “C++”] in [“teaching English”, “programming”, “burger flipping”]. (That should probably be a hash, but in order for that to make sense, you’d have to run a program and — fuhgeddaboutit.) And, you know, that’s where the problem lies. Agreed, we need a lot more focus on the maths and sciences in grade school. Speaking as someone who was semi-boned by moving to Tennessee from the much-better school districts in Ohio, if I’d experienced a better framework for learning, say, even long division, there might be a better chance that I wouldn’t experience mortal fear upon looking at a multi-step equation. However, for every hard-skills course we have, we also need a soft-skills class.

Think about it: How many engineers do you know that are  brilliant at coding, but cripplingly awkward?

Obviously, there’s a world of difference between etiquette and analyzing a literary piece. However, there was a study floating around – and I’d link it if I remembered where I first saw it – that showed the connection between empathy between people and reading high literature. That is, as mind-numbing as Joyce is, he puts you utterly and totally in another person’s shoes. While programming is obscenely utilitarian and useful, there’s not a lot of human interaction in there – learning Ruby may exercise your logic muscles, but it won’t make you think about whether calling your nemesis a “whackoff” would be a good idea.

And so, I think that idea of the renaissance man, that idea that “a human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly” – in Heinlein’s words – is central to being a human. The jack-of-all-trades may not make a six-figure salary as, say, a dermatologist specializing in teen acne treatment, but he will be able to wear many, many hats in the course of a day.

And, perhaps it’s just because I’m trying to justify my slow (by my self-destructive standards) progress learning all this programming shiz, but I think there’s a lot to be said for that. Specialization is indeed for insects – or robots. After all, we create the robots so we don’t have to spend our time screwing bolts into things, or glueing windshields into newly-constructed vehicles, or whatever else you want to talk about. We make the bots so we can be free to enjoy life – theoretically, of course. What more often happens is the heavy hand of the free market then lowers wages, cuts hours, and busts unions. But, I don’t think that’s the fault of the bots – but let’s not talk politics in this space.

That comes later!


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