T and Ω: a critical stance on our dangerous desire for overspecialization
I have written elsewhere on the deep need that our overspecialized western societies —–which find themselves in a serious ecological crisis, in confusion regarding the question of the divine and in the presence of multiple deep political tensions—– have for T-type kind of people. I myself am part of those few who try to consider themselves “T-minded” individuals. My resume is a “T-kind” of resume. Although this post intended to show both some of the obstacles for the actual generation of T-minded people, as well as some of the essential and more deeply clarified characteristics of such individuals and their complex narratives, the length itself of these reflections has limited me in this post to a more basic goal. This post will merely reflect and puzzle as to why the letter T might be both the best and the worst candidate to graphically represent what I have called “T-minded people” are all about. Subsequent posts will hopefully deal with the very important issues regarding the obstacles themselves which T-people face given their decision both to be seriously critical of overspecialization and its blind, powerful and utilitarian defenders, and also to fight the generalized and very real obstacles which make the creation of reflective-oriented T-people in our hyper-specialized societies almost, and tragically so, impossible. Our reflective path here will lead us from the letter T to the Greek letter omega (Ω). Both letters, as you will see, may provide the graphical basis for a serious critical stance on our dangerous desire for overspecialization.
Classical liberal education stands as a counterweight to such overspecialization. This can even be seen in the way we educate our bodies. Physical education has become an option for those who want to “specialize” in it. In contrast, the classical practice of a liberal education had a central physical component in the area of “physical education”; it was a very important part of a more holistic understanding of what it means to be fully human. Now, in several highly-specialized countries, this “education” appears as an optional goal given our radical tendency to over-specialize our children. This is a tendency for which we are paying the price in terms of our children’s very own physical and mental health. What is the over-specialized society’s solution? Well, seek a health specialist! And moving from specialization to specialization we move farther and farther from another type of understanding of things, a healthier and a happier (in the Aristotelian sense) mode of being. In contrast, a liberally educated society sees that a “physical education program is designed to cultivate physical fitness, basic athletic skills, and an appreciation of the value of recreational physical activity”. Link
What holistic “physical education” allows is an education in moderation as well as in the beauty of the whole. It also prepares the mind for play and the value of leisurely activity. Over-specialization is founded upon a certain immoderation and the partialized beauty of dissection. One could even go so far as to say that overspecialization rarely knows of leisure, for it must constantly seek further specialization in order to gain the upper hand. Its endless desires know of little rest. Many modern athletes, with their dramatic stories of excess pressure and unwise decisions, are a prime example of such differences. Professional cycling, as in the Tour de France,is only one of many such examples. Our athletes are, regrettably,no longer liberally educated.
In a similar vein, it is Aristotle ——a T-type philosopher—- who expresses beautifully this kind of awareness in the culminating reflections as they appear in the Politics. These reflections can be seen as the most developed words on what are the very foundations of a truly liberal education. For instance, there he writes concerning the best possible education regarding drawing as it relates to generating the conditions for a free and virtuous citizenry:
“Similarly they should be educated in drawing not so that they may not make errors in their private purchases and avoid being deceived in the buying and selling of wares, but rather because it makes them experts at studying the beauty connected with bodies. To seek everywhere the element of utility is least of all fitting for those who are magnanimous and free.” (Aristotle Politics VIII *3, 11138a40-1338b3)
For if there is to be specialization, as there must be, it must be of a very different kind. Drawing and learning to see the beauty of our bodily condition go hand-in-hand for Aristotle. Seeing beauty and becoming a nobler and freer type of citizen also go hand-in-hand. In contrast,for us overspecialization goes hand-in-hand with increased utility; the more you specialize the more “you’ll get out of it”. Just think of the way our athletes are recruited nowadays. Or just ask your family doctor. We have thus lost view of a different form of magnanimity and public freedom which stands as a powerful and necessary corrective. And to such type of Aristotelian drawing we shall try to return when looking at the way we draw in our minds the letter T, letter which stands against such dangerous and self-destructive tendencies towards overspecialization.
Or put another way. Shaw is said to have said: “More and more, we know more of less; until there will come a time when we will know much of nothing, and nothing of the whole.” Our informational age gathers and reproduces very specialized know-how endlessly; just think of the hundreds of blogs posted daily on the web. And one hears, first condition for your blog to be successful and be read by many, specialize it! Or think of the important yet endless publications on the most minute issues which are disconnected from all other types of understanding. Our age specializes in specialization. We are knowers indeed; and yet,paused reflection on the serious limitations surrounding this kind of specialized and self-reproductive knowing is mostly lacking. So much so, that of our age it is perhaps true to say that because it sees only the trees it fails to see the forest. In fact, to see the trees without seeing the forest is certainly what has endangered our dwelling in this our planet currently in critical ecological indeterminacy. In contrast, T-minded people seek to see the forest and traverse the changing paths of the forest to have a clearer grasp, if ever incomplete, of the whole. T-people are forest dwellers, rather than merely tree analyzers. Murdered nun Dorothy Stang, who sought to protect Brazil’s rainforest,was one such forest dweller. And if they in fact decide to “analyze” trees, which T-people can, then they do so with a different grounding, a grounding in the poetic. I have looked at one such form of analysis here: Link
But let us return to our privileged letter, the letter T. Why use this letter as a mode of self-understanding? Please look carefully at the letter itself:
Nothing special, right? We know it and know how to use it.
But I must stop. I am truly sorry for so many delays. We haven’t even started, and yet we already encounter our first puzzle. Why? Precisely because I believe only “T”-minded kind of people will actually seek to stop,see and reflect on the letter itself beyond its utility. I might be very wrong, but I think few ofus have actually looked at the letters we use in our daily lives as the pragmatic specialists that we are. We simply use such letters to write, to speak, to designate, to express. Such letters are not ends-in-themselves, they are simply means to other human things and goals. But, what if what is deeply required of us in our “never-ending progressivist age”, were reflection on the basics themselves? We have become so accustomed to using these letters that we have forgotten that once they did not play a central role in our self-understanding as humans. What I mean is, in part, something like this.
Anne Carson’s beautiful Eros the Bittersweet, a short and poetic study of the Greek alphabet in connection to the erotic poems of Sappho and the dialogues in which Socrates’ life is portrayed,recalls how an illiterate man reported seeing some strange figures which for the literate were obviously letters. But he himself could not recognize ——let alone understand—– them as they were foreign to his self-understanding. Here is what the illiterate man, that same one who abounds in our developing countries,reports:
“I am not skilled at letters but I will explain the shapes
and clear symbols to you.
There is a circle marked out as it were with a compass
And it has a clear sign in the middle.
The second one is first of all two strokes
And then another one keeping them apart in the
The third is curly like a lock of hair
And the fourth is one line going straight up
And three crosswise ones attached to it
The fifth is not easy to describe:
There are two strokes which run together from
To one support.
And the last one is like the third.“ (Carson, pp. 57-58)
And Carson goes on to “solve” the riddle which for us literate ones is no riddle at all: “The man has spelled out the six letters of the name Theseus: ΘΗΣΕΥΣ (note: letters in Greek)”.And that is not all, this is a fragment of a tragedy which Euripides himself entitled with the very same letters, the tragedy whose name is Theseus. (Have you ever thought about the letters of YOUR name? Do you remember how difficult it was to actually learn to write it down? How much satisfaction accompanied this act! Have you ever seen your name written down in another language and felt the overwhelming surprise?) Describing them so, we recall that each letter goes beyond its function, each has a form and a unique beauty. A letter hides a mystery, one such letter is “curly like a beautiful lock of hair”. Letters can be ends-in-themselves, even in their simplicity. (I have argued something similar for prepositions here , and for basic lines here )
And we come to realize as well, that uniqueness is not universally shared. So much so that we marvel at the form underpinning the drawing of this Arabic letter: ى .. Do you see its curvy beauty? Do you see its elongated bird-like being? Or else, I once tried to learn Hebrew (the things one does for love!), and I recall I had to see, among many others, this Hebrew letter: ש. I am indeed prejudiced as I have come to love lines given my decision to become a T-oriented person myself; but can you see the perceptual possibilities here? Can you see the musicality, the natural growth, the candle-like presence, the ascending spirituality? Can we for one moment be surprised as the illiterate man was? Can we still learn to draw as Aristotle bids, namely, in wonderment? Or are we immune to such surprises given that we cannot get hold of our own global ignorance given our radical knowledge in what are only individual, localized, self-enclosed and disconnected realms? (more…)
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