A case for the generalist
In Communication Design we often discuss whether we’re doing the right thing in education our students to be “generalists” rather than in some very targeted specialization the way some art philosophies dictate. But, I think I’ve got it resolved in my mind now…we’re doing the right thing. This era of specialization that the world is in often means people have blinders on: they’ve learned to do one thing and one thing only. While they may do this one thing well, they’re not broadly educated.
The industrial history of the United States abounds with stories where the brakeman ascends to become the president of the railroad or the linotype operator goes on to become the managing editor. These people could think in addition to doing their early skill; when the opportunity arose to advance, they were able to take advantage of it. They weren’t so locked in to their original skill that they couldn’t see beyond today. With the current trends toward extreme specialization, are those examples relegated to the past?
I think not, as long as there are schools that believe in a broad educational background with a significant amount of general education credits so that one is not just trained in an area but instead broadly educated.
What if the exact job description you hoped to get isn’t available to you upon graduation? Without your abilities to think, to adapt, to change your plans, you’d be lost. The illustrator who finds that she must do design work in addition to the illustration jobs; the designer who finds that it’s really advertising that can best use his talents; the art ed graduate who finds a rare business opportunity in buying a boutique; the B.F.A. General student who finds his real challenge is in college teaching. This cross-discipline thinking is to be commended and is quite impossible had specialization set in and done its job too effectively to constrict lateral thought and movement. We’re doing the right thing. Specialize later if you wish, but being a generalist in college will be an asset for your future.
-John K. Landis