Thursday, September 09, 2010

Academic Generalist

Carl Trueman, professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, has a great post (actually it looks like it'll be a short series of posts) In Praise of Generalists. He demoans the overly specialized approach to academics, writing, "...NT studies shows no signs of running out of topics. All that happens is that the topics become narrower and more arcane. This has little to do with the intrinsic nature of the New Testament and much to do with the need to find a dissertation topic and then to publish. No-one gets published for saying what's been said a million times before and in the same hackneyed way. It needs to be a new topic, or at least a novel presentation of an old one...This kind of behaviour creates in turn what one might dub a vortex of specialisation: as academics know more and more about less and less, the possibility for an overall synthesis becomes increasingly impossible not only to realise in practice but even to conceive of in theory."

Just this summer I dismissed the notion of pursuing a (future) academic career, switching programs at Covenant from a ThM in Exegetical Theology to a ThM in Biblical and Pastoral Theology. The switch was away from a very specific and towards a more general and practical degree.

Why the switch? Honestly, I like studying, but burnout on topics after 4,000 pages of reading. I've been working on a study on Evangelicalism. I enjoyed the first 2000 or so pages, the last 2000 pages of reading has been tough. I'm bored with it. I like knowing a little about a lot, not a lot about a little. I like being a generalist. After I've finished this class (on evangelicalism), I'd like to bounce back and do something in the New Testament, then something in Systematic Theology - maybe the Doctrine of the Church. I can't imagine doing another 4000 pages of reading on evangelicalism, even if the topic got narrowed a bit (i.e. evangelicals view of the church, etc.). I always read multiple books at one time, but fair better when they aren't so similar I feel like I'm reading the same thing if four books. In the long run, I think being a generalist will be good for me and think I'll be better equipped to serve the church. I'm exceedingly thankful for the specialists who take time to study theological or biblical minutia. I'll continue to read the specialists, and stand in awe of their focus. But I'm not one of them, and I'm happy to have finally realized it!

1 comment:

Beth said...

As a professional generalist, welcome to the club! I'm glad there are options in your field for folks who love to learn but don't want to waste their time specializing in something that's obscure and impractical.

Day-to-day living requires a vast array of skills, and most professions require another set of broad skills like writing, reading, analyzing, public speaking, etc. In my view, education should equip us with the skills we'll need in all of those general areas. Most of us will have no practical use for the super-specialized knowledge we gain from writing a dissertation - we just have to prove that we can write one. And unfortunately, most of our dissertations will have no audience whatsoever.

Anyway, hooray for generalism, and for being equipped to face whatever comes. (See 2 Tim 3:16) :-)