In many ways, we live in an age of experts. Over the last century or two, the number of fields of knowledge, and their depth, has proliferated to such an extent that to truly be a "renaissance man" and have a solid grounding in everything is virtually impossible.
Doctors use computers which are essentially magic to them. Computer technicians drive to work in cars that are similarly mysterious. And car mechanics are generally not up on the current advances in medical science. There is simply so very much to know about so very many things, that most of us settle down to be an expert in one or two fields, be interested in one or two others, and ignore or regard as magic the rest of the world.
The dabbler has thus fallen into disrepute. "Oh, he's just an amateur," people say. Some even suggest that to do anything other than obey the commands of the expert before one is to deny reason.
Certainly, it's true that in most fields major discoveries are invariably made by experts these days -- while a hundred years or more ago they were at least as often made by fascinated amateurs, often from among the leisure class. And those discoveries that are still made by amateurs (the majority of new asteroids and comets are still discovered by amateur astronomers) are generally methodological ones rather than conceptual breakthroughs.
Yet even if one stands no chance of achieving the level of knowledge of experts in the field (and in conversation one should acknowledge as such) I am a great fan of amateurism, as is perhaps evident from the scribblings here. I work in marketing analytics, but I dabble in history, classics, literature, writing, economics, politics, guns, Go, carpentry, biology, anthropology (and science generally), brewing, liturgy, theology, philosophy and (that which sums all such things together) education.
I'm far from an expert in any of these, and I try not to oversell my knowledge. I doubt I shall be providing any unique contributions to any of these fields -- and yet certainly all of them make a unique contribution to me. We need amateurs. Fields of knowledge and work need amateurs for the love they bring to the subject. And society needs people to be interested in things other than their specialties, lest we all be highly trained techno-peasants.
While it is experts who make many of the discoveries and write the original works these days, it is amateurs, I suspect, who do much of the spreading of the love of that knowledge to others. What, after all, is knowledge unshared, or books unread?
Saturday on the Links
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