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Become a Big Picture Specialist

Written by Gary North on May 21, 2016

“What do you know?” is a standard greeting in America. “Well, what do you know about that?” is another familiar colloquial expression. The odd fact is that the person who repeats either of these phrases really doesn’t expect you to know much at all. The standard refrain to “What do you know?” is “Not much.” Peter wrote, “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you . . .” (I Pet. 3:15). That is a very broad assignment. There are many people who might ask all sorts of questions concerning the reason of the hope that is in you. That hope is not some single-faceted matter. It is an all-encompassing faith that involves the whole created realm.

A few years ago, I spoke at a seminary in the South. I admonished the students to set this task before their eyes. They should maintain their commitment to studying the broad sweep of orthodox theology throughout their careers. At the same time, however, each of them should discipline himself to master at least one specialized field that might prove useful to the church as a whole at some future period. Both disciplines are needed for a balanced intellect: the general and the specific.

Such discipline is difficult. Only a handful of pastors ever achieve it. In fact, only a few scholars do. They tend to become specialists, even as the pastors tend to become generalists (if they try to become anything at all, intellectually). But the Christian world needs both the generalist and the specialist, and best of all, the person who is familiar with the difficulties and possibilities of both.

The generalist has the advantage of being able to fit the parts into a whole. That whole may be fuzzy around the edges, but at least it’s an integrated whole. It provides a framework for dealing with numerous bits and pieces, although in order to fit them into a preconceived whole, the generalist is tempted to force the parts together, not taking sufficient care to see to it that the edges of each piece fit securely in the corresponding edges of the other pieces of the intellectual puzzle.

The specialist is barely concerned with the whole. He is too busy shaving the fine edges of his little piece of knowledge, making a work of art out of his special field. He tends to ignore relationships between parts, and he is less likely to exercise creative judgment in discovering important correlations between seemingly unrelated data.

We need finely crafted parts. At the same time, it’s not the parts as parts that we are concerned with; we are concerned about the integrated, functioning whole. This is why experts in any field have an obligation to keep the broad picture in mind. That really is what we mean by the words “universe” and “university”: a coherent, integrated whole which gives structure and meaning to the parts. And Clark Kerr was quite correct when he described the modern university as a “multiversity,” of which his own University of California was chief–an unintegrated body of wildly specialized academic moles, all burrowing deeply into their tunnels.


It takes lots of reading to keep up with practically everything. Yet it is the widely read leader in any organization who can make some semblance of sense out of the daily operations of the structure. The generalist is like a juggler who must keep oranges, pins, and plates in the air, while giving the appearance of total control.

A program of successful tactical maneuvers is worthless unless it has a grand strategy. Winning the battles and not the war means very little. We must have dedicated men in every sphere of life who can exercise self–discipline to master a grand strategy for their particular areas of responsibility, and then mobilize the troops. The generalists are like military commanders, also called generals, who can provide leadership for the experts in the specialized fields. They must, have a “feel” for the problems of the specialists, as well as a “feel” for the whole. Without the presence of a generalist, scholarship becomes fragmented. So do other forms of human organization.

The generalist must have the courage of his convictions. He is the one who takes the greatest risks. ‘He always faces the criticism of other generals, but even more annoying, because of their inevitability, are the criticisms of the specialists who see a “non-professional” invading their jealously guarded domains. This does not prove that the generalist knows nothing about the field. The subtle nuances of the specialists’ debates may have escaped the generalist, but he can always find a certified specialist who will back him up, if he looks hard enough. It is his lack of “fine-tuning,” not his conclusions as such, that are likely to create opposition to the generalist among the tightly knit fraternity of specialists, where methodology, not content and conclusions, tends to reign supreme.

The generalist has to bear the risks of making numerous methodological gaffes in some specialist’s field or another, but he knows that the risks must be taken if the war is to be won. Obviously, no general can know the exact conditions in a particular field as well as the captain who is there, but on the other hand, the captain needs the support of a commanding general if he is to be maintained in the field. Academic specialists, unlike captains, seldom have any sense of dependence, or the sense of a true battle’s being in progress. They do not acknowledge the need for a chain of command from a generalist with a commanding view of the battlefield.

(For the rest of my article, click the link.)

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