The Generalist

February 1999
Published in a slightly different form in the Summer 2000 issue of the Vassar Quarterly


It would be interesting to know when the label “crisis” began to be routinely applied. One imagines that this habit might have accompanied the growth of the mass media, but perhaps not. In any case, now 44, I cannot remember a time when the world and the United States both were not beset by several crises; in particular, for quite a while now the U.S. educational system and our youth along with it have been relentlessly failing and at risk.

In my youth one of the crises was that the increased sophistication of the society, and of science above all, was creating a nation of specialists. I don’t recall what the terrible consequences of this error were supposed to be. Perhaps they related to our fears of nuclear holocaust. Specialists were now capable of developing weapons the use of which we had no generalists to control?

Finding myself interested in all sorts of occupations and fields of knowledge, I took this crisis to heart. I can’t say that I experienced a religious conversion or even made an explicit decision; I felt buoyed by the idea that I was going to be one of the generalists the world required. In between studying history, fiction-writing, ballet and foreign languages, I worked in factories, assembling fiberglass filters and repairing machines that made electronic parts. Whereupon I became a carpenter, reporter, government manager, novelist, transportation planner, United Nations “language officer.”

The experiences I have had along the way, ideas uncovered or stumbled upon, the people I have gotten to know—they are so much a part of my life that it would seem absurd to wonder: What if I had specialized? (What if I had grown up in Brazil?)

I have always been interested in philosophy. I spent a year in Paris studying with some of the luminaries of Post-Modernism. Supposing I had continued on to a Ph.D., tenure, an old Volvo stationwagon and a sabbatical every six years? Supposing that when I was getting my master’s in creative writing I had devoted myself entirely to creative writing, instead of also taking pre-med courses? (Not because I wanted to be a doctor; I loved math and physics).

I don’t think I was ever so naive as to expect the world to offer me a job: generalist, $100,000 per year. I am sure, though, that there were times when I imagined that the world would come to honor and take care of me because of the breadth of my experiences and interests. After all, this is what the society was so in need of: generalists. Though I would be embarrassed to dig them up, I’m sure that in more than a few job-application cover letters I suggested that this, above all, was why I should be hired as a policy analyst, foundation officer, foreign correspondent, private-school teacher: I was a true generalist.

Readers will not be surprised to learn that there were a lot of jobs I didn’t get. At a lot of interviews I got the “you seem like a very bright and interesting young man” line; after a decade or so it occurred to me that it was a polite form of “No.” And how bright could I be if I didn’t realize that you didn’t get to be a foreign correspondent without either powerful connections or long years working late, chasing down your editors’ story ideas, gathering information that accorded with their view of the world, accepting their revisions, laughing at their jokes?

It has also occurred to me that were I now to go to heaven to see the former foundation presidents, educational leaders and magazine columnists who briefly expressed such concern about our nation of specialists, these dignitaries would be more astonished than saddened by my not-very-tragic careering. Perhaps they would point out that a generalist was not necessarily a dabbler, nor vice-versa. They might also try to gently suggest that—my charming modesty notwithstanding—I had yet to take the full measure of my ignorance. “Back then we thought it important to call attention to the need for generalists precisely because they were in disfavor,” I hear them telling me. “It is somewhat surprising now to come face to face with someone who took our call as an indication that he might succeed, or even triumph, by ignoring this fact.”

Pulling me aside, one of the wisest and most wizened whispers in my ear: “A society only comes to define an ideal for itself when there is an aspect of its nature that it wishes it could change or ignore. We like to say that while we don’t always live up to our ideals, they light the way, helping us to progress. This may be so, but you would do well to keep in mind one of the other features of such a beam: as it illuminates what lies ahead, it leaves in greater darkness those who hold the lamp or follow behind.”


Photograph of a Brazilian soccer fan is by Duncan Walker / Istockphoto.

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