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Steven Nikolidakis

Student, The Cooper Union For The Advancement of Science and Art

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Does society need more interdisciplinary work? Or more well-rounded individuals working together?

This week in my Bioelectricity class there was an emphasis on learning about muscle physiology. One facet of the musculoskeletal system which I find especially interesting is the notion of having specialized muscle tissue for certain actions or scenarios in life. Muscle is composed of individual fibers called myocytes, each containing protein strands which grab and pull on each other to induce muscle contractions. Muscle fibers can further be broken down into two types, namely Slow Twitch (Type 1) and Fast Twitch (Type 2). The Slow Twitch fibers are extremely efficient at converting oxygen into usable energy and allowing athletes to perform tasks for extended periods before they fatigue, such as running a marathon. The Fast Twitch fibers, on the other hand, don't use oxygen to create fuel and can recruit motor neurons for a short but powerful burst, which can be useful in a sprint. Each muscle may contain any combination of each of these fibers in order to perform an activity.

In this case, specialization proves to be an imperative characteristic to the completion of a task. In today's world, people immerse themselves in a vast array of fields in order to help the society advance. So I ask the TED community: Is it more beneficial to society to consist of people who are experts in one field, or those who have a well-rounded background in many fields?

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  • Mar 30 2012: I don't know exactly what the right balance between the two would be...
    But in this society the standard, the default, is to be a specialist.
    That's why I believe interdisciplinary work is needed... just because the world is full of specialists.

    Also, there are more limitations on specific topics when studied in isolation from other disciplines... once you start getting interdisciplinary, you can move past those barriers, but there is always a need for specialized individuals.

    If you want to be a leader or have an important role in life, I guess it's better to be inerdisciplinary and well rounded. As well as for just enjoying life.
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      Mar 30 2012: Thank you for your comment.

      I agree that there would have to be a balance between the two, and doubt there is a "right" balance for today's society. There is definitely an importance in being open-minded to many subjects and being able to find similarities and common ground between them. I also see why you would say that the default in today is to be a specialist. Why do you think that is? Is there an innate drive in humans to want to focus and hone in on just one field, or is that guided by society/education system?
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        Mar 30 2012: I believe that many individuals enjoy the feeling of becoming excellent or highly competent at something and understanding it well. This would be consistent with Martin Seligman's ideas in positive psychology of what factors lead people to happiness or content. Not everyone, but many people, have a taste for depth.Often in the absense of depth, understanding of the interconnections among fields remains superficial. Deep understanding is usually necessary but not sufficient for advancing a field. Interdisciplinary understandings enhance ones prospects for advancing the field through associative thinking.
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        Apr 1 2012: Hey Steve,

        I think both, the humans' innate drive and the structure of the education system, push us towards specialization. As Fritzie said, we tend to have a "taste for depth," but usually for only a couple of subjects. Through life we experience a lot of things but, for me at least, not everything catches my attention. When things do interest me, I try to learn more about them; and when they don't interest me, they just drift out of sight. The point here is that specialization does for me seems to be innate.

        The education system seems to foster this innate tendency towards specialization. Perhaps this is why we must declare majors upon entering college. We can't just go to school, learn a little bit about everything, and then get a degree in general knowledge; it has to be something specific. Even If the innate tendency towards specialization was not already there, school forces it in that direction. The top of the education hierarchy (PhD) does not promote an increase of knowledge in all subjects, but rather an extreme specialization in one topic. It is tough for people just looking to learn about everything because as one climbs the educational hierarchy, the focus seems to get more and more narrow.
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          Apr 2 2012: Andrew,

          I completely agree with you here. I also tend to indulge deeper into subjects that I find interesting and that catch my attention, leaving out the ones I am not as interested in. Over time this causes a specialization in a general area and that is only bolstered by our education system as you point out. You make an interesting point comparing the education system to a hierarchy where a PhD is considered to be the top. Seems as if we are led to believe that by specializing deeply in one topic, we have attained the most "knowledge possible." I have found a quote from 1948 by American scholar Richard Weaver showing exactly that we just alluded to:


          The former distrust of specialization has been supplanted by its opposite, a distrust of generalization. Not only has man become a specialist in practice, he is being taught that special facts represent the highest form of knowledge.
          Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago: 1948), p. 59
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          Apr 3 2012: Hi Andrew,

          I agree with you, our educational institutions push us towards increasing degrees of specialization; just reading the title of a PhD thesis is proof of that. I guess when climbing the educational hierarchy the focus gets "more and more narrow" because we realistically don't have all the time in the world and, as an earlier comment by Yu-An Chen noted, fields are ever-expanding and simply keeping up-to-date with the advancements in one field can be difficult. The more in-depth you go, the larger the field seems to be; I've decided to call this the "law of specialization" (it applies to all specializations, for example lizard contest behaviour, which is a huge field depending on who you talk to). However I think the approach of solely trying to keep abreast of developments in your specialization, with little awareness of other fields, can actually make things more difficult. Inter-disciplinary collaboration is only possible if one is generally aware of the capabilities of other disciplines. At the same time, whilst a generalist is capable of linking together many specialists, they might suffer from not being able to sufficiently understand the needs of a particular discipline- because they're not specialists. I think a great way to get around this is for specialists to also generalize, and spend some procrastination time learning about something completely different (which is why TED is great). Despite the old adage I believe it's very possible to be a jack of all trades and a master of one.
      • Apr 1 2012: I believe this has a lot to do with society but also human psychology. I guess it's the easiest choice. It's tough to get out of your confort zone... start doing something that you're again, not the best at.
        If you were the best football player in your country (or school), you'd feel as if playing hockey is not worth it because you're out of your confort zone, NOT BEING THE BEST.

        Hard as you may work, decisions are usually the hardest part of life, and constantly starting something new, tolerating starting from the bottom of the chain, is not as rewarding as staying in the confort zone, for most people.

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