Is Specialization Calcifying Our Ability to Create?
2013-11-12 0:00

From: TruthDig

In an intriguing essay about the nature of work and creativity, writer Robert Twigger argues at the website Aeon that an industrial-led move to divisions of labor has stifled modern creativity. True innovation, he suggests, comes from cross-pollination—and breaking through the walls of one specialty to tap into the energy of another.

Part of the equation is the advent of sedentary work environments. Physical labor, he notes, helps hone intellectual muscle, as does viewing the world through a horizontal filter—the polymath—rather than a vertical one—the monopath, as he calls it.
We hear the descriptive words psychopath and sociopath all the time, but here’s a new one: monopath. It means a person with a narrow mind, a one-track brain, a bore, a super-specialist, an expert with no other interests—in other words, the role-model of choice in the Western world. You think I jest? In June, I was invited on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 to say a few words on the river Nile, because I had a new book about it. The producer called me “Dr. Twigger” several times. I was flattered, but I also felt a sense of panic. I have never sought or held a PhD. After the third “Dr.,” I gently put the producer right. And of course, it was fine—he didn’t especially want me to be a doctor. The culture did. My Nile book was necessarily the work of a generalist. But the radio needs credible guests. It needs an expert—otherwise why would anyone listen?

The monopathic model derives some of its credibility from its success in business. In the late 18th century, Adam Smith (himself an early polymath who wrote not only on economics but also philosophy, astronomy, literature and law) noted that the division of labor was the engine of capitalism. His famous example was the way in which pin-making could be broken down into its component parts, greatly increasing the overall efficiency of the production process. But Smith also observed that ‘mental mutilation’ followed the too-strict division of labor. Or as Alexis de Tocqueville wrote: “Nothing tends to materialize man, and to deprive his work of the faintest trace of mind, more than extreme division of labor.”

Henry Ford recognized the problem, too, even as he revolutionized manufacturing with his innovative moving assembly line.


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