The Problems and Advantages of Specialization

As a composer progresses in their education, a common track is:

  1. Bachelor’s degree: finding one’s voice.
  2. Master’s degree: gaining some ability to teach, becoming more adept at the craft, and gaining further knowledge of the field.
  3. Doctoral and post-doctoral studies: full competency to teach, adept at the craft, and aware of the past and current trends in the field.  Not seasoned, but getting there.

As one progresses, one becomes more and more specialized.  Coursework selection, private study, extra studies outside of the university, thesis, and dissertation all hone one to become less diversified, and more specialized.

That is, of course, if you let those guide you that way.

There are inherent problems with specialization:

  1. Obsolescence; at what point is your specialty rendered irrelevant by the saturation of the field, the lack of any further “ground to break”, or technology?
  2. Irrelevance as a result of being too much of a niche; at what point is your niche in and of itself out of context and so far removed from debates that populate in academic and the public?
  3. A specialization that is simply not worth furthering.  It is possible that your specialty just is not worth pursuing long term, and that it has no value other than to you.

But, there are of course problems with generalization:

  1. Never becoming an expert in anything, and thereby never pushing one’s craft to the limits of one’s potential.
  2. Doing too many things to be able to spend enough time to accomplish anything significant in any of them.
  3. Becoming engrossed in mindless and irrelevant pursuits, in ignorance of more organized, substantial, and fruitful endeavors.

After much time spent specializing, I am entering a period of generalization.

This inquiry is in part being written to aid myself in my quest for a solution, but it is also a way to show others that specialization and generalization are not permanent.

For example, my most recent specialization was the intersection of rock and contemporary classical music.  I am now generalizing to include more mixed media, written word, and work-life balance in my time.  But, I have no doubt that I will continue to generalize and specialize in constant flux, sometimes overlapping one another.

In this way, it begs the question: is specialization indeed the true purpose of an academic education?  If the goal of becoming a doctor in any field is to specialize, does that forget the primary purpose of education: to foster critical inquiry and empower a mind to think independently?  Have we lost education in favor of specialization?

I do not think there are clear answers to these questions.  Specialization has its merits and the inquiry into the deepest parts of a subject have yielded countless results, both in those fields and by the collaboration and research-reference with other fields that are sometimes vastly different.  At the same time, generalized thinking promotes such cross-pollination and creates a mind with more perspective, and perhaps less bias.  (That is a big “perhaps”.)

In the end, I believe that the answer to this debate is “yes”.  Yes, specialization has its merits and faults.  Yes, the same is true of generalization.  The issue I have is that these are fixed; they are kept in concrete tracks leading to one path or another.  I argue that they should be used together, in constant flux.  Generalize sometimes, and specialize other times.  Do both at the same time.  Do neither at other times.  Regardless, do what you do with full intention and full energy.  We need specialists and we need generalists; we need specialists who generalize, and generalists who specialize.  We need independence and interdependence; those who work alone and those who collaborate; those who think seemingly too much and those who say seemingly too much.  And we can all do those at the same time, within ourselves and out in society.

In the meantime, I will be listening to more rock while planning my next composition.



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