In Defense of Being a Generalist
Cuba has a free medical school. It’s called the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM), and by student body, it’s the largest medical school in the world, teaching thousands of students from over 100 countries. Tuition and board are free, and students are trained to become primary care providers. You don’t go to ELAM to become a plastic surgeon or a radiologist. You won’t earn the kinds of paychecks these specialized doctors do, but you also won’t have any debt.
ELAM arose because Cuba understood that having a lot of doctors was good for the public. In Cuba, medicine is a middle-class profession. Most doctors focus on primary care, and also promote basic public health in their communities. The average town, in Cuba or anywhere, does not need a plastic surgeon. Maybe a few per country are useful, but in general, we need medical generalists.
It’s not just medicine, of course. Every industry is replete with hyper-specialized experts who focus entirely on their niche. From academia to most Medium writers, from production to the non-profit industrial complex, we’re encouraged to pick one thing and be the best at it. Ours is a world that rewards focus and depth, not breadth.
The great advent of the Western economic system was the division of labor. Championed by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations, the modern economy was built on the practice of specialization. In a factory production line, it was most efficient for each person to do one task, over and over and over again. The division of labor allows for the greatest increase in production.
The problem is, of course, that increased production does not always correlate to increased well-being. In the United States, we have some of the greatest specialized healthcare providers in the world, but run-of-the-mill medical care is inaccessible to far too many people. By contrast, we have much more comprehensive higher education than many Europeans. We recognize that a holistic liberal arts and sciences education builds a more creative and innovative workforce than immediate specialization.
So if we understand that having more holistic knowledge helps us thrive, why doesn’t our economy encourage us to be generalists? Because specialization brings…