In Praise of the Dilettante

Why we need more inspired generalists

"Experts" denigrate the dilettante. They are wrong. Modern society seems to value only the specialist, whom it calls “professional”. No longer does one simply visit a “dentist”. Now, in America, for anything the slightest bit out of the ordinary, you are directed to a periodontist or an endodontist or some other obscure “ist”. If you want to have anything more than an eye check-up you can be referred to a practice that specialises only in retinas. The commercial lawyer can tell you little about divorce law. There are twenty-six broad categories of engineer in the Yellow Pages, no doubt each with its own range of micro-specialisms.

But this is not the worst of it. Not only are most people specialists but they possess less and less general knowledge. Fewer schools have a weekly period on “general knowledge”, or have discussions and debates on the issues of the day. Nowadays in the United States what knowledge of the world there is is gleaned from the, usually single, local newspaper, which relies on only two wire services for material. Radio is dominated by right-wing talk shows, and television news has become, not a public service, but a “cost centre”. That is to say, the bottom line is king. News does not sell advertising. Thus, TV stations give only cursory coverage to national and international stories, and as inexpensively as possible. The adage that all politics are local can now be adapted to the news: most television news is local, and what isn’t local is quick and superficial. We are told that the internet and the blogs are revolutionizing the dissemination of news. But how many have the time to scour the Internet for the truth?

The fact is that burgeoning technology and the trend for big business to shift the burden of “customer service” onto the consumer, in order to boost profit, have given us less time, not more. Who is not burdened by the struggle to keep modern hi-tech devices up and running, and the sheer time and frustration involved? Who is not more pressured than ever before by the vaunted capitalist market to spend more and more time keeping up with the minutiae of his or her chosen specialism, to work harder and more “productively”? Who is not burdened by increasing fear of sudden unemployment, sickness and penniless old age? No wonder the public has neither the time nor the inclination to read novels and books that appeal to the imagination, that tax the vocabulary or open up new vistas of knowledge. What sells are technical manuals, “self-improvement” books, cookbooks and travel guides.

And so the general population is becoming narrower in its interests and more ignorant of matters taken for granted as general knowledge fifty years ago. The modern world finds it harder to make judgments based on broad cultural, geographic or historical contexts, and is thus in danger of making grievous errors that cost lives and reputations.

There is a horde of specialists in the history of the American Revolution, producing a steady stream of books on this over-studied period. But as far as I can ascertain, not one American historian was able to stand up before the invasion of Iraq and say in the media, “Hey, somebody else (the British) messed up trying to do what you are now proposing to do, almost in living memory.” Nobody pointed out how the three disparate provinces of Iraq were cobbled together, and why. Nobody quoted the words of Winston Churchill in 1922: “Iraq, as we have constituted it, is ungovernable.”Why not? Could it be owing to the over-specialization that leads, as night leads to day, to a lack of balance and perspective?

Too many “professional specialists”, because they are “experts” in their field, can become self-important and take themselves oh, so seriously. They do not know what they do not know. Others, stuck in dull corners of dull professions, take out their frustration and spleen on the declining number of generalists by calling them “dilettantes, amateurs, dabblers, jacks of all trades and masters of none.”

The dilettante has a bad reputation in the modern world of the “joyless economy”, an economy where the niche is the thing and where narrow expertise is what sells. Ask not of the university applicant, “How will you educate yourself?” but: “What job are you training for?”

So what is a dilettante? The dilettante is nothing less than a generalist, a person with a wide and catholic view of the world, a man or woman who finds this world exciting, who wants to know about a wide variety of scientific, artistic, and social matters, a person who can make the link between one subject and another, seek and find parallels between one discipline and another, and rejoice in the variety and complexity in the world. He (or she) is one whose interests are in wider connections.

To be sure there are those who are, as the Hutchinson Encyclopaedia describes them, not only “amateurs of fine arts”, but “superficial lovers or practisers of art.” There are those in every walk of life who are spoiled or lazy or simply incapable of settling to anything for more than five minutes. But I suggest that in most areas of life, whether it is sexual orientation or political viewpoint, there is a curve in the affairs of men. Those at the extreme ends of the political curve are the fascists and the communists; in terms of sexual orientation the Don Juan or the totally asexual person occupy opposing and extreme positions. On the 80/20 principle, eighty per cent of us live ordinary lives somewhere in the “normal” middle.

Let me apply this principle to the generalist. At one end of the spectrum are the driven “Renaissance Men”, few in number, trying desperately to know everything about everything, probably frustrated and quite possibly know-alls and party bores. On the other end of the spectrum is the poseur, flitting from one subject to another, but lacking the intellectual wherewithal to internalize anything he learns, basically lazy and only spasmodically curious. And in the middle of this Bell curve are those who find joy in life, who want to explore their talents, limited though they may be, who have fun, who ask questions, and who maintain an intellectual curiosity and interest in world events, even if they cannot influence them.

Generalists, when young, may have studied art history, economics or the nineteenth century British novel, but face increasing odds at the end of their studies. Potential employers want people with practical skills who, they think, can join the company and be up and running in days. Those people are important, and it is not my purpose to dismiss their skills. But in practice those with a broad liberal arts education can usually master the technicalities of a business fairly promptly. What they can offer is an ability to think laterally as well as logically, to come up with new ideas, and to get the most out of staff. To overcome the prejudice against them, the liberal arts majors of this world have to be smarter and more adaptable to survive. Or face unemployment. Although some businesses might still be broad-minded enough to seek out the educated as opposed to the technically trained, it is becoming harder to unearth them.

Look around you. At the end of the day (or 65 years of age, whichever comes first), these “unemployable” generalists end up no less wealthy and “successful” than those who got the fancy jobs to start with. They have learned on the job and often have something others lack: an active mind and a zest for life that carries them happily to the end of their lives.

The pressures of modern business life, the long hours, the short holidays, the macho pressure to perform and to conform will normally mean that those who have outside interests are inevitably dilettantes, if by dilettante you mean someone who is informed and interested, but not an expert. Lack of time means it is hard for someone in full-time employment to become an expert in a field outside his professional speciality, but this does not mean that the “hobby”, call it what you will, is not useful or mentally healthy. Of course, the reward for perseverance with an outside interest comes with retirement. Meanwhile, the annals of Wall Street and the City of London are stocked with dismal tales of businesses run by narrow specialists, prime candidates for takeover or demise.

And what do generalists, or dilettantes if you wish, face in their daily lives? A populace with declining general knowledge and little grasp of history. If you cannot understand where you have come from you will have difficulty working out where you are headed. All too many people are so full of fear that they have buried themselves in single-minded workaholism. And to what purpose? There is no second chance.

But, you might object, “It is all very well for you to indulge your poetry, your painting, your musical composing, your singing, your acting, whatever. The rest of us have to make a living”. Perhaps you agree with Paul Dunbar?

He scribbles some in prose or verse,
And now and then he prints it
He paints a little, - - and gathers some
Of Nature’s gold and mints it.
He plays a little, sings a song
Acts tragic roles or funny
He does because his love is strong,
But not, oh not, for money
He studies almost everything
From social art to science,
A thirsty mind, a flowing spring
Demand and swift compliance
. He looms above the sordid crowd,
At least through friendly lenses,
While his Mama looks on, pleased and proud
And kindly pays expenses.

(Paul Lawrence Dunbar, The Dilettante: A Modern Type, 2002)

In reply I would suggest that the number of those dallying their lives away, literally supported by their Mamas, must be rather small.

Lifelong learning and an open, inquisitive mind that thirsts for knowledge costs little, except time and will. If this makes some people feel uncomfortable, this is maybe because most people prefer to conform to current fashion, and the current fashion is to praise the “expert” and damn the “amateur”. Few commentators are probably even aware that they are effectively riding with the herd when they denigrate the generalist.

Secondly, many of the greatest advances in science and the arts have been made in the past either by gifted “amateurs” or by talented people who have been encouraged and supported by those with money. In the old days these were the aristocrats or the landed gentry. There is nothing wrong with patronage of this sort. Without it the world would be drab indeed. For every person who drifts through life supported by “Mama” or her equivalent, there are those who, in developing the talents they were allotted, have become famous artists or inventors or writers or teachers.

And lastly, in an era of globalization and homogenization, the media and big business, deliberately or not, are creating a conformist, manipulated world, a world of bread and circuses, where the people are fed movie pap and celebrities to keep them occupied, while the power brokers run away with the money and the power. What this world needs is more eccentrics, more spirited lovers of knowledge, more open-mindedness, more gifted amateur and the seekers after truth, who can spot cant and hypocrisy when they see it and call the powerful to account. Most of all we need more people who enjoy life, who live and love.

And so what if one flits from one subject to another as long as it brings with it a sense of fulfilment and happiness? By what right has anyone to be derogatory about those who have the passion and (maybe) the talent to pursue non-income-earning interests out of worktime? Are they in general less fun to work with or to socialize with? Do they lack a sense of humour because they delve into a host of subjects? Why should they subscribe to the idea that “This life may be grim, but the next life is going to be better” frame of mind? As the philosopher, Epicurus, said: “Let us live while we are alive”.

Robert Hanrott, February 2006