I was cursed with a quick wit and curiosity for all subjects of learning and extracurriculars. I loved math but did it sloppily and thus missed occasional minus sign that blew up the whole equation. Science was awesome, but my passion for it was erased by the difficulty to the Exeter curriculum, plus I was way too eccentric to focus on that exclusively. Eventually I majored in English in undergrad, but mostly because I couldn’t truly commit my interests to anything else particularly, and it was the easiest from a credit perspective; it didn’t have a clear career track though, not even a clear grad school track, but it sure was fun writing those zany essays!
I played the violin from age 4 on, but quit and never picked it up again when I was 12 because the conductor in my middle school was not to my taste. I could belt out harmonies picked up with an acute ear, and I had an incredible range, but I wasn’t a tenor or a bass, and anyway, I got terrible stage fright during the solos, so I stuck mostly to the risers and it never really went anywhere. I played three or four different sports and eventually arrived as a borderline tri-varsity athlete, and I loved them all, but never truly focused on one in particular. Tennis was the one if there was one sport for me, but if you didn’t focus on it all three seasons, you got passed by the players who robotically did, so that was that. I could run all day, but was bored by cross-country and swimming, wasn’t big enough to play football, wasn’t nimble enough for soccer, and was stuck between a guard and forward in basketball.
So I ended up being… well, a little bit of everything. I worked at ESPN, managing grocery stores, Pizza Parlors, Administration, Data Entry, Writing for the AP, working as a Production Assistant for NASCAR, Tutoring, and then finally a whole lot of Teaching, the only profession for everyone who gets stuck on the ragged edge between true mastery and casual interest. I have found my way now as an entrepreneur, but it took about twenty to thirty years of “finding myself,” and I wasn’t awarded early parole for good behavior, for a wandering young soul is rarely good. I loved every minute of my journey, but can’t help but wonder at the infrastructure that underlies it.
This phenomenon is one that has, in fact, become more exaggerated in our society in the last twenty years. If you don’t start playing the flute professionally at age three, you’re already behind. If you want a scholarship to Georgetown to play baseball, you’ll need to be taking batting practice 5 days a week beginning in Kindergarten. If you want to specialize as an academic, woe be to you, but you better have a 4.0, a perfect score on your SAT, and perhaps a publication or two on your record. This is only mild hyperbole.
It has been carved even deeper by trends in college admissions. The combination of de-emphasis on standardized tests and ridiculous grade inflation and brought other parts of applications to even brighter light. The SAT an ACT have been relegated to test-optional or test-blind status in many cases, and while not eliminated altogether, they are not emphasized as much as they once were. Grade inflation has never been worse. Many institutions have half of the graduating class sporting all A’s. So fine, you’ve got a 4.2 and did pretty well on the test-optional SAT like 10,000 other candidates, but what else can you do for me? Oh, you’re a prodigy at the didgeridoo? You’re in, kid. We got an open spot for a female Didgeridoo player from Idaho.
But our society, generally, loses by failing to provide avenues for the most versatile, and the slower to develop. The human brain doesn’t fully complete its process of forming myelin sheaths that organize the grey matter of the brain until around age 25. Why should we reward those that have dug deep channels at a far earlier age, other than for arbitrary reasons? All due respect to the Doogie Howser’s of the world, but life is not a race to maturity. Some of the best things need good aging.
I don’t mean me at all, I had myriad opportunities, but I might have been part of the last generation of the ‘Renaissance Man’ (or woman, it is not gender specific at all) that gets the chances that I did to gel. On a social level, this patience in specialization is critical. What about the need for leadership to have a stable platform of all abilities and the ability to compartmentalize them strategically? All due respect to the curling champions of the world, but why is that student going to Harvard over the one who is pretty solid in everything but hasn’t quite got it all sorted out just yet? What impact will that have on America? We should have a pretty sick handball team for sure, but our future leadership may not be able to spell ‘diplomacy’ without a squiggly red line.
It is incumbent on the present generation not to get caught up in the fanaticism of niche learning, as tempting as that may be. We’re a culture built on the strength of competition, the economy a bedrock of individual drive to personal excellence. Specialization has its place, no doubt. I’d like the engineer who designs the car that I drive my kids to school in be pretty damn focused on engineering. I’d like the surgeon doing my eye corrective surgery to be pretty obsessed with surgery, and I don’t care if he also read Plato. But when we lose sight of the power of a basic set of intellectual and extracurricular abilities used holistically to form a more well-balanced and fully educated individual, we lose a part of the American essence, an eclectic set of incredibly diverse sub-populations that thrive in the ability to engage with the different.
Specialization is insulation. For a ballet dancer, their success is determined by how much they dance and don’t not dance. But when we bury our heads in the one strand in front of us, the shirt gets lost in the threads. While the stitching may be granularly beautiful, when no one sees the whole, the cardigan is no different than a rag.