Are Jacks of All Trades Trading Down Africa? – By Bright Simons
My various travels across Africa have given me the opportunity to see and hear which trends, themes, and topics of conversation are gaining fast popularity in several countries. I suppose it’s like taking the pulse of a continent to measure its vital intellectual signs.
One such fast-spreading talking point in the more economically liberal African countries, where democracy is also deepening the most, is that the region is spawning too many dilettantes, all-knowing know-nothings, running amok all over the place, hopping from radio station to radio station, TV talkshow to TV talkshow, miseducating the masses with their weak understanding of technical issues, lack of discernible track record in any proper discipline or career, and general poor education.
Associated with this worry is the concern that somehow “˜specialisation’ is on the decline, and that a fast-liberalising continent is being flooded with “˜jacks-of-all-trades’ mumbling half-baked dross to a clueless media and an even more clueless population.
Though this is a widespread view, there is by no means only a single version of the view, even if the underlying sentiment is almost always the same. Another angle to it is that in the major sub-Saharan African countries at least – Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania etc. – there is actually a decent number of very competent specialists in a significant range of disciplines, and that they have either been driven out of the public sphere by loud, quarrelsome, noisemakers, or that they are too wrapped up in their consultancies and careers to give a hoot about public debate, public education or civil discourse.
Whichever version one prefers, the point remains the same: Sub-Saharan Africa is being mis-educated and misinformed by generalists, and should either grow/develop more specialists and/or create more room for those already in the system to flourish. The point is perhaps even more poignant because it is a global one. Not too long ago the author Andrew Keen wrote the “˜Cult of the Amateur’, in which he forcefully decried the growth of a “˜culture of shallowness’ in the West, blameable in large part on social media, the internet, and a festering TIY (think-it-yourself) culture. He called for a return to greater depth.
This is a reasonable call, perhaps an urgent one. But we need to be careful of the nuances.
Firstly, while specialists remain critical to any true progress in any of the technical domains so vital to our region’s development – engineering, medicine, accounting, crop science, animal husbandry, carpentry, and child psychology, to name a few; the challenge is that these domains nowadays express themselves within complex, multi-disciplinary, areas of action: infrastructure, health, agronomics, interior design, human development, etc.
The development of countries and human progress in general, have, as processes, become MULTI-DISCIPLINARY. But, even more critically, they have also become INTER-DISCIPLINARY and TRANS-DISCIPLINARY.
So rather than just the more familiar approach of, for example, mixing “˜medicine’, “˜epidemiology’, “˜psychology’, biostatistics, bioinformatics, etc. to create a broader super-discipline called “˜public health’ to cover connected fields of knowledge, we are now seeing more complex combinations of disciplines in the attempt to tackle some rather amorphous challenges. For instance, we are witnessing more and more the attempt to develop experts in such areas such as “˜military ethics’, “˜human security’ and “˜health finance’. This can get rather curious rather quickly.
Would a hedge fund manager, whose investment vehicle specialises solely in acquiring equity in “˜health management organisations’, or an analyst for Moody’s (a rating agency) focussing on pension funds for health workers, be regarded as a “˜health finance expert’? Such an individual may know quite a lot about the intricacies of financing certain institutions or systems critical to healthcare delivery, but his or her actual specialty may be far from healthcare itself. Someone looking for a “˜healthcare financing expert’ may not think of either of these two people. Just as someone thinking about an “˜elections integrity expert’ is unlikely to think about a serialisation, authentication, or document security expert, though in the various electoral disputes that have blighted such countries as Ghana, Kenya, and recently Zimbabwe, much hinges on security printing, document forensics, and IT security in trying to assess the quality of the overall voting process.
But this is too easy.
Actually, the trickiest nuances concern the emergence of COMPLETELY NEW FIELDS OF KNOWLEDGE that leave everyone scrambling to determine which existing specialties will advance the new field the most. “˜Carbon market policy’ is an interesting one. It is far from clear whether environmental economists, geo-informatics experts, or industrial policy experts will make the grand breakthroughs needed to design the right frameworks for the optimal functioning of such markets. It may well be entrepreneurs who are skilled in bringing together the right mixture of as yet indeterminate skills. But the truth is that we are in uncharted waters. And the continent that many experts predict would suffer the most from this climate change thing is in more choppy flows than most.
And that is even assuming that “˜climate change marginalisers’, who tend to be political activists, rather than disciplinarian experts, are not the ones who will end laughing at everyone else who took the subject too seriously.
It takes humility for experts of all shades to unlearn and relearn in order to apply the best skills in their repertoire, borrowing liberally from other disciplines as they chug along.
It is all too easy to say that the answer is in “˜teams of specialists from multiple disciplines’ working to a common objective. Quite often generalists are critical in thinking across the “˜lines of difference’ astride these multiple disciplines and are essential in multi-disciplinary teams. Entrepreneurs and visionaries are good examples of the generalists conceiving the new reality THAT THEN DEMANDS the precise mix of specialists required.
The second point is that history is replete with specialists missing big breakthroughs in their own spheres of knowledge application because they often think too deep but not broad enough. That is, they fail to appreciate the full implications a broadening line of inquiry could have on their limited focus. Why did it have to take Henry Ford to create the modern automobile industry? Or Thomas Edison to create the modern electrical grid? What were the experts in the great citadels of learning in Berlin, Munich and Boston doing? Busy drilling down perhaps.
Indeed, historically, the “˜public intellectual’ was a man of many parts. Even when not actual polymaths, they often showed a breadth of interest rarely encountered today. Imhotep, the ancient Egyptian royal advisor, was an architect, engineer, physician, and religious maven. Isaac Newton was both a theologian and a physicist. Benjamin Franklin was both an optician and a literary genius. Paul Robeson, the African American musician, was also an athlete and a lawyer. In our own time, Ray Kurzweil has proved adept at philosophy, musicology, artificial intelligence, and computer optics.
And at any rate, can a society break-through a long-standing problem that has defied generations of specialists without the disruptive input of visionaries of a generalist persuasion? Without, for instance, people who can perceive the connections across anthropology, heuristics, psychology, software development, neuroscience, and hieroglyphics as they think through the best kind of interfaces for making natural language processing more accessible to the masses, or social media websites more friendly to illiterate farmers in rural Uganda who have never seen a clock in their lives?
Very often, a complex knot in one discipline is unravelled because someone saw an uncanny resemblance to a model in a distant discipline, such as the eureka moment that is sparked when an origami enthusiast sees a genetic nano-structure under the electron microscope that seems to unfurl from the world of her other passion.
Lastly, there are more late bloomers than we may think: people who take quite a while before narrowing down on a subject worth their passion. These people may throw themselves into multiple disciplines; even make seminal advances in these fields, before settling on the one grand choice, if they ever settle at all. A society that frowns on dilettantes of this sort will simply stifle the creativity of many of its best minds. Imagine if Leonardo da Vinci had been compelled to stick only to mechanical flying objects – no Mona Lisa. Or if Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah had been confined to theology, because that is the academic discipline that occupied him most intensely – no consciencism.
Specialists are important. But so are generalists. As Chinua Achebe once said, “˜in a great man’s house, no matter what drums are played, there is always someone to dance to the music.” Any call for a provincial, narrow-minded, population would be an attempt to drive people away from the reality of a complex world in which we will soon need to make laws to mediate between machines that can think, regenerate and perhaps even learn to be autonomous, and ordinary humans.
The “˜lawyers’, “˜politicians’, “˜economists’ etc. needed in such a society need to be more than merely “˜cybernetic law specialists’ and “˜sentient warfare policy experts’. They need to be able to draw on the history of slavery, the Foucauldian sociology of power, Asimovian-Turing model of agency, and novel psychological concepts of personhood, not to talk of completely different techniques of forensic engineering and crime science.
Simply put, it would be a call to deny the growing complexity of a post-industrial world, in which the intense specialisation justified by the industrial revolution no longer provides a complete rationale for how to educate and keep a new kind of professional fulfilled in a professional career. And in a fast globalising world, there is little point in saying our problems here are much narrower. In fact, they are even more unwieldy since we often need to translate other people’s breakthroughs into our own unique environment, a process that requires insights not just into multiple disciplines, but also into multiple cultures.
Could the real problem we need to grapple with in sub-Saharan Africa be one of mediocre specialists and even more mediocre generalists? If the jacks-of-all-trades appear not to be adding any value, or appear incapable of illuminating the gaps between seemingly divergent fields of knowledge and inquiry, is it perhaps only because the specialists – the town planners, utility engineers, public finance bureaucrats, criminal justice professionals, and meteorologists, to name a few – are in the same boat with them, uninspiring?
How can generalists assist in the interdisciplinary process when there is little by way of advances in the specialist domains to combine and re-combine? And let us not kid ourselves, we now have the biggest university population we have ever had in the history of the continent, many of whom are presumably being instructed in various specialties. If the output seems somewhat bland, then it is bland all the way through, generalist or specialist.
I must repeat: if there is any threat to the intellectual climate in Africa today, then it is the threat of mediocrity, not generalism.
Bright Simons is a Social Entrepreneur and Public Interest Researcher. He invented the mPedigree anti-fake drugs system (www.mPedigree.Net), and is a Fellow at IMANI, a think tank in Ghana.