Whenever I am asked what I do for a living, I say that I am a historian, nothing more nothing less. Most other historians I know are more specific in their reply. They can mention the time period they are experts in–medievalist, early-modernist, ancient. Or, they state the geographical region–Americanist, Europeanist, Africanist. Sometimes they mention the specific field of research to which they dedicate their professional life–literary history, language history, art history, Church history, to name a few.
Taken together, my work as a teacher and a scholar covers a time period of 5,000 years, it spans a geographical area that reaches from Scandinavia to Canada, the Arctic, Central Asia and North Africa, and it crosses disciplinary boundaries.
If I were to declare myself to be anything, I would say that I am a general historian. A generalist, I suppose. And if you ask author David Epstein, it’s us generalists who hold the future in the palm of our hand.
In his book Range. Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, Epstein argues that the generalist has a greater chance at success than the specialist. Generalists are masters of more than one complex issue. They are well-versed in more than one field. They are skilled at handling people. They seek out environments that will spark their creativity and make them think outside their usual box. They ask broad questions. They use critical thinking. All this knowledge provides them with experiences that make them unique and irreplaceable, while the specialist becomes a highly skilled person working at an advanced conveyor belt. A 21st century version of the Renaissance Man vs Taylorism, if you will.
According to Epstein, if you want to be successful, it is better to go wide than to dig deep. Epstein argues that society would be better suited for the challenges of the 21st century if children and young adults were allowed to receive a broad education where they are only allowed to specialize late, if at all.
The problem with Epstein’s argument is not the argument itself, but the evidence he provides. To make his point, Epstein uses case studies, which are all in support of his argument. None of them adds a critical stance, which would have added heft to Epstein’s own thinking. After all, an argument without a counterargument is not an argument; it’s an opinion. And if there is no counterpoint, then how can we asses the validity of the point being made?
Epstein’s case is further weakened by the fact that his case studies come from the worlds of sports, finance, STEM, and business. Not one case study is from the liberal arts or humanities. Why is this important? Because what Epstein spends almost 300 pages arguing in favor of is an education in the liberal arts, and he does this without mentioning liberal arts, or the humanities, even once.
In other words, Range claims to point out a path to the future but what it does is reveal the one-sidedness and the lack of a generalist approach inherent in the person of its own author. Instead of advocating in favor of the liberal arts, a generalist education program invented during the Middle Ages and still taught in universities across the United States, the only thing that Epstein and Range actually achieve is arguing in favor of reinventing the wheel.
In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.