So Much for Specialists?
“A specialist,” said a wit, “is someone who knows more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing.” Laughter springs from absurdity, and we can easily see the absurd in the whole process of specialization. The laughter can be haunting, because we depend on specialists and specializations; you might even say we are addicted.
We depend on our cars to get around, but our cars are so complicated that we must send them to a specialist to get them fixed. The laws we live under are too many and too complicated; we hire a lawyer to sort things out, or, if our business requires it, several lawyers with differing specialties. Our psyches are complex, so we hire specialists in the mind to teach us to use our own brains. Our fields of knowledge are so particularized that they use different languages, largely incomprehensible to those outside their field.
At the end of the day, though, a problem remains. Is there someone who specializes in putting together all those little parts attended to by the specialists into one coherent life? By definition, wholeness can’t be a specialty. But without it, who is benefiting from the specialized knowledge?
Who is in charge of what the specialists can’t address — the whole person, and the community of whole people? Who could that person be if not ourselves or someone who knows us — us, and not just our problems?
People in high places are still expecting that our national life can be run by empowered specialists.
I have seen a patient who had several medical problems simultaneously, each attended to by a different medical specialist. Despite those physicians’ best efforts, the man was not healing. It took a family member who took the time to assemble the big picture of all the treatments the patient was undergoing — and then it became apparent that the treatments and medications conflicted with each other and were themselves hindering his recovery. For the patient was not just an unrelated congeries of unrelated problems — he was a whole, real, singular person. And it was the unified challenge of his life at the moment to be healed.
We need to find wholeness in our national life, as well. There too we are addicted to specialists who can make it all simple and fix what’s wrong right away.
But specialists in national life are no different than specialists in private life. Each one has an expertise that can be applied to a special part of the whole only. The economist cannot speak as an expert on the medical problem that faces the nation, nor can a public health expert speak with the same credibility and helpfulness on economics as she can on the spread of an infectious disease.
But when have we ever had only one problem facing us, as individuals or as members of a community and citizens of a nation? Even if we can turn our entire attention to just one problem, it doesn’t mean that the problems we ignore will agreeably disappear without our attention and our effort.
Who, then, is the specialist in paying attention to those things outside the view of the other specialists? Who is the specialist that puts all the pieces together? Who should assign priority among competing demands for attention and among competing specialists?
As in the case of the patient, it is not another specialist, qualified by the mastery of a certain limited part of life, but rather someone whose qualification is love.
Love sees the whole. Love puts all the pieces of a life or a nation together, with an affection for the whole of it, expressed in every part.
Love cannot be bought or rented out. It cannot be acquired by an effort of anything less than the whole of who we are. It requires, as Deuteronomy reminds us, all of your heart, all of your soul, and all of your transcendent reach.
In an essay from 30 years ago, Wendell Berry wrote of the widespread assumption
that human lives are properly to be invented by an academic-corporate-government elite and then either sold to their passive and choiceless recipients or doled out to them in the manner of welfare payments. Any necessary thinking — so the assumption goes — will be done by certified smart people in offices, laboratories, board rooms, and other high places and then will be handed down to supposedly unsmart people in low places.
People in high places are still expecting that our national life can be run by empowered specialists. They still believe that the citizen is their servant, whom they intend to treat benignly but from whom they require deference. Liberties are dangerous. Freedom lies outside the brightly focused areas of the specialists and therefore are unimportant. How can they be trusted to act on their own unless they are curtailed, for their own good, from making significant choices in more and more areas of their lives?
No more could Dr. Frankenstein turn a patchwork of parts into a real human being than a series of specialist-driven policies can capture and inspire the nation to rise up and overcome. It takes instead something deeper and more profound — the love of our nation, and of the people who make it up. It is that love that puts the pieces together into a coherent whole. It is love that enables us to confidently take on the dangers that always exist and to work on them as a mighty whole, infused with the various intelligences granted by God to each and every one of us.
Respect the scientists and the science; respect knowledge and insight that is hard-won and brings real insight. Know and respect the limits of our own knowledge, and be willing to defer to others who may know more.
But in the end realize that it is the duty of each one of us to love, to care for the whole person, the whole family, the whole community, the whole country, the whole world. For that care, that love and that devotion, there are no experts whose voice is more meaningful, relevant, and powerful than our own, the voices of the citizen-sovereigns of this great Republic.