WHITHER SPECIALIZATION ?

— Dr. George Thomas


The Times of India recently reported that Haryana has become the second state in India, after Rajasthan, to have a minimum qualification for candidates contesting local body elections. Similarly some time back a minimum qualification was suggested for journalists. What is being suggested is that a specialized elite group be created when the need of the hour is more non-qualified writers and politicians. On the face of it such a move seems welcome, but a study of global electoral norms shows that most countries that have qualifications for their legislators are not the leading lights of democracy.

Or take the case of science where minimum qualification is the norm. Leading scientists are being accused of frauds in scientific research. The Chairman of the US House of Representatives subcommittee for the investigation of frauds in research has stated that 40% of heads of US graduate schools are aware of frauds in their institutions. 27% of researchers had personally encountered misconduct among colleagues. The Guardian has reported a 10 fold increase in scientific research papers retracted due to fraud. Misconduct involves fabrication, falsification and/ or plagiarism.

To an extent, specialization is the cause. On one hand we see the so called specialists for the want of original ideas churning out fake research papers. On the other hand there are many non-specialists with original ideas but without a forum to express them.

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Hasn’t specialization gone to absurd extents? For ages we have had families running business institutions in their own unique ways. They have been successful businessmen without any formal training. Sadly such down-to-earth businessmen are being replaced by MBAs. What training in hotel management do the successful Udipi restaurateurs have? Is Bachelors in Education a sine qua non to becoming a good teacher? In the medical profession where the hair-splitting specialization is rampant there is a joke that there will soon be separate specialties in ophthalmology - one for the right eye and another for the left! A cardiologist looks at the patient as though he is one big heart, and the nephrologist as though he is one big kidney. There is no one to look at the patient as a whole - as a human being. Specialization has even invaded the creative arts to the extent that if you have not done a course in the particular art your creative work will not be recognized. Of course any trash by the ‘specialist’ becomes a chef d’oeuvre. Now politics and journalism are being drawn into this category.

So what’s wrong with specialization? Specialization has percolated into every aspect of our lives that it is equated with professionalism. That’s where things have gone wrong. Specialization is inversely related to originality. Most of the revolutionary inventions and discoveries were made in the pre-specialization era. The Wright brothers were not aeronautical engineers. Michael Faraday was not an electrical engineer. Gregor Mendel was not a geneticist. George Stevenson was not a mechanical engineer. Legendary artists like Michelangelo have never entered the portals of fine arts colleges. They were all wide eyed generalists rather than myopic specialists. All the wonderful things we have done in this era of specialization have been just improvements of the originals invented or discovered by the non-specialists. For example, all the utilities of modern living are due to one major discovery by a book-binder named Faraday ie electricity. Has any learned physicist or scientist discovered any other practical energy form?

With the advent of specialization original thinking has been muzzled and the result is plain mediocrity. People working in specialist groups are biased by the existing concepts and are not allowed to deviate from them. They are intellectual zombies brainwashed with stereotypes ideas which have been passed on through didactic curricula. You cannot have a fresh perspective. There is no scope for innovation, imagination or initiative.

Another problem with specialization is that it creates an artificial halo to the field- making it an esoteric realm. Outside opinions and ideas cannot find berth in their exclusive fora. What is wrong if an engineer finds a cure for AIDS? Or a physician finds a new way to increase fuel efficiency in automobiles? Or a school drop-out writes an article on rape law? As specialization has been equated with professionalism even society by and large hesitates to accept non-specialist ideas.

I do not say that we must do away with specialization. We must de-emphasize specialization. The stress should be to have more competent generalists. The real specialist should evolve naturally from among the generalists. Education should be restructured to produce high quality generalists with a broad perspective. Inter disciplinary exchanges must be encouraged. Let us put a stop to producing run-of-the-mill instant specialists through courses and exams.

The culture of specialization should be reviewed. The greatest inventions and discoveries came from non-specialists. We must go back to the non-specialist culture of the industrial revolution era to usher the new industrial revolution of the 21st century. The weirdest ideas could be the hope of the future! To be an icon the mantra should be ‘I can’ and not a college degree to mediocrity.


About the Author
Dr. George Thomas is a cardiologist practicing in Kochi, India. He has published scientific papers in national and international journals. He has also written public interest articles in leading publications.

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