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In Defense of Specialization

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To judge from the jeremiads of some of academe’s elite scolds, the specialized scholar is an anachronism. Disciplinarity is dead. Or it should be.

The Harvard literary scholar Louis Menand, to name one prominent Jeremiah, wrote in 1998 that the disciplinary structure of the modern research university is “expensive; it is philosophically weak; and it encourages intellectual predictability, professional insularity, and social irrelevance.” Disciplinarity and the intellectual specialization at its core is, he later expanded, little more than an “episode in the history of the division of labor.”

That “episode,” we should remember, began on these shores with the rise of the American research university roughly from 1870 to 1915, when American academics organized themselves, their labor, and their institutions according to disciplinary boundaries defined by specialized and credentialized expertise. American scholars also established national professional organizations, including the Modern Language Association (1883) and the American Historical Association (1884), and university departments. All of that, in Menand’s view, gave rise to what is now a stultifying system of self-governance and autonomous experts devoted more to perpetuating the guild than to advancing knowledge.

Menand is hardly alone. Cathy Davidson, a distinguished professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, believes that this “archaic, hierarchical, silo’d apparatus” will soon and mercifully be overturned by the emancipatory force of new digital technologies. Our universities, she argues, are “stuck in an epistemological model of the past.” The disciplinary organization of knowledge is antiquated and ripe for the disruptive effects of “collaborative” changes that digital technologies and the Internet will usher in.

Read the rest of the article here as PDF: In Defense of Specialization – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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