A Charlotte Mason Education, Charlotte Mason, Educational Reform, Liberal Education for All Movement, Science of Relations
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Postmodern Polymaths: A Charlotte Mason Perspective on Specialization vs. Generalization by Timothy Laurio

We no longer ask ourselves whether it is better to learn a few subjects ‘thoroughly,’ so we say, or to get a ‘smattering’ of many. These questions are beside the mark.—School Education, 75

During my teen years I had several discussions with my parents about the virtues of specialization versus generalization. Should you focus on one or two subjects until you are extremely good at them, or should you emphasize broad knowledge of many things? At first the discussions were just theoretical, but as I came closer to graduating, and having to choose a major and a career, they became increasingly urgent. In the end, I only half reached a conclusion, and the question still stands.

Charlotte Mason, of course, believed that it was unhealthy to study only a single subject: she said that “specialisation . . . is to be deprecated” (Philosophy of Education, 53) and crafted her method to give students a rich, wide-ranging education. The result, at least among the Mason alumni that I know, is obvious. They have a plethora of interests, and would rather pick a favorite child (so to speak) than choose just one interest to pursue for the rest of their lives. A common theme is that they are not content to merely dabble in the things they love; they want to be good at them.

That ambition becomes more difficult as you get older. When you’re young, it’s easy to pursue a wide range of interests; as you get older, there is increasing pressure to narrow your focus. For me in high school, trying to choose a major and a career, this pressure was frustrating. After all the time I had spent cultivating many interests, why was I suddenly being asked to choose one? It felt like my education had prepared me to be a Renaissance man, but the world only accepted specialists. “Crossing into adult life? Sorry, you’ll have to leave your extra interests at the door; only one item allowed.”

That’s an exaggeration, of course, but the dilemma is real:  how do you manage life with a bunch of different interests? How do you become good at one thing when your attention is divided among ten things? More practically speaking, how do you choose a college major or a career when you have multiple interests? And how do you land a job in an oversaturated market if you don’t specialize?

Once again, Mason is very clear that specialization is to be avoided. What she means by this, however, is not as simple as it may sound.

First of all, not all specialization is the same.  The kind that Mason seems concerned about is what I would call “functional” or “exclusive” specialization:  learning just what you need for a specific purpose, whether that means studying only the information you need for a specific test, or learning only the skills you need for a specific career. She decries what we call “teaching for the test” (see School Education, 75-76) and laments that Darwin “lost himself in science until he could not read poetry, find pleasure in pictures, think upon things divine” (Philosophy of Education, 53).  She disapproves of technical schools and vocational training for the same reason—in fact, she blames World War I on Germany’s utilitarian approach to education, which left the country “morally bankrupt,” giving the German people no higher motives than personal and national gain (Philosophy of Education, 123).

When we talk about specialization today, however, we sometimes mean another kind: a pursuit that goes deep without cutting us off from other interests.  This is what I would call “relational” or “covenant” specialization:  devoting lots and lots of time and attention to a single thing until you know that one thing intimately, be it a book or an instrument or a place or a person.  This kind of specialization—an ongoing commitment to a specific thing—is necessary to achieve mastery of any discipline, and does not seem to be at odds with Mason’s vision.  At the very least, she admired men like Wordsworth and Wren who had “specialized” in something, be it poetry or architecture, enough to master it.

So much for my first point.  The second is this:  the alternative that Mason offers to specialization is not generalization. Generalization implies that you have a surface knowledge of many things but expertise in none:  it’s the reason “Jack of all trades” has negative connotations. When Mason developed her educational philosophy, she envisioned something beyond that.  What was it? Well, it turns out that the sense I had of being a Renaissance-man-in-training wasn’t so far off the mark. In Philosophy of Education, Mason writes that

in the great (and ungoverned) age of the Renaissance, the time when great things were done, great pictures painted, great buildings raised, great discoveries made, the same man was a painter, an architect, a goldsmith and a master of much knowledge besides; and all that he did he did well, all that he knew was part of his daily thought and enjoyment . . . . Leonardo knew nothing about Art for Art’s sake, that shibboleth of yesterday, nor did our own Christopher Wren, also a great mathematician and master of much and various knowledge, to whom architecture was rather a by-the-way interest, and yet he built St. Paul’s. (53-54)

When she envisioned the ideal outcome of her educational method, she had the original Renaissance men in mind as models.  These were the types of people she was trying to raise:  people who were not devoted narrowly to a single pursuit, but had the breadth of character to be interested in the whole range of human experience; people who were not merely interested in many things, but cared deeply enough to master many.  She was trying to raise modern-day Renaissance men and women.

Fast-forward to the present.  Is that ideal still possible?  And—more importantly, for some people—is it practical?  These are legitimate questions.  When Mason created her methods, she was not thinking primarily of making people who could compete in a highly selective job market, but of making fully developed human beings.  We don’t live in an age of polymaths, however, but of specialists.  Fields—whether in research, athletics, the arts, or your average job hunt—are increasingly specialized and competitive.  If you want to make headway, you have to narrow your focus—to build up experience and credentials for a specific career. In fact, people take you less seriously if they find out that you have interests besides the one they’re hiring you for. (I was just talking with another musician recently about how we omit our musical accomplishments from our LinkedIn profiles, because it deters potential employers and clients if they see musical background mixed in with a “professional” résumé.)

Charlotte Mason understood the need for employability.  She believed, however, that a well-educated person was more than capable of learning the specific skills necessary for your average job.  Paraphrasing the words of nineteenth-century social reformer Alexander Paterson, she says that,

given a well-educated man with cultivated imagination, trained judgment, wide interests, and he is prepared to master the intricacies of any profession; while he knows at the same time how to make use of himself, of the powers with which nature and education have endowed him for his own happiness; the delightful employment of his leisure; for the increased happiness of his neighbours and the well-being of the community; that is, such a man is able, not only to earn his living, but to live. (Philosophy of Education, 121)

In my experience, this is true.  The specific skills for a particular job are easy to pick up, if you’re given half a chance.  Getting a job in the first place does require specialization, however: at least enough to build up a resumé in your specific field.  It’s a compromise, I suppose, with a culture that rewards specialization and is suspicious of polymaths; but again, in my experience, it’s a necessary compromise.  You have to have the experience and credentials to show employers that you are an expert, and give them a reason to hire you rather than one of the hundred (or thousand) other people applying for the same job.

Let’s go back to the first question: is it still possible to be a Renaissance man or woman today?  I think the answer depends on what you mean. It’s harder today to rank among the elite in multiple fields. For one thing, the body of knowledge is much larger now: no matter which field you choose, there is more to learn, and it takes longer to learn it.  For another, the standards of technical prowess are (arguably) higher now than they were in the past.  Athletes are stronger and faster than they’ve ever been; musicians must have nearly perfect technique if they want to compete for normal jobs—a far cry from the days of Alfred Cortot, who was an acclaimed concert pianist in the early twentieth century, yet hit wrong notes even in his famous Chopin recordings. (Other qualities were valued then more than technical ability: qualities like musicality, grace, and interpretive skill.)

So, yes; in that sense, it is harder to be a Renaissance man (or woman) today than it was in the days of Leonardo da Vinci.  In another sense, however, nothing has changed.  Mason was trying to raise whole persons; and you can be a whole person, with a life full of rich relationships, without ranking among the elite, or becoming famous, or even being very successful.  She believed that education should raise men and women to have intimate relationships with many things, not because mastery is the path to money, respect, or fame, but because “fullness of living, joy in life, depend, far more than we know, upon the establishment of these relations” (School Education, 76).  As long as fullness and joy are our goal, the possibility of becoming Renaissance men and women is well within our reach.

©  2014 by Timothy Laurio


  1. Sheila Bice says

    Such an excellent article and very well thought out! While reading this, I thought of Theodore Roosevelt, a man I just taught a home school co-op class about. He very much fits the description of a Renaissance man. He read widely and valued knowledge on many topics, reading about five books per week. He accomplished much during his lifetime and also wrote nearly fifty books.

  2. I appreciate your thoughts on this, thank you. I’ve been wondering if it’s possible to share CM principles with adults in vocational schools and how to go about doing it. I feel strongly about the working class in America that is so desperate for “education” but cannot even define what it is. So many people undervalue themselves because they only have a specialized skill and nothing else. I wish we could find a way to get vocational schools to teach like CM did. Sigh.

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