Beggar at Ghazi Chowk


Poorer by concentration

6 Mar 2013

Published in the Daily Princetonian March 6, 2013.

An interviewer asked me a few days ago what the relationship was between my academic interests in policy, music and computer science. He preceded this with a comment that he had no idea what I was interested in after reading my resume. I was cool with that because I felt like I, too, have no idea what I’m doing with my life. At least we were on the same page.

I told him my interests in all of those fields didn’t really intersect. That didn’t help my job prospects, so I went into recovery mode.

Many of the skills learned doing various sorts of academic work are transferable to the work at a tech company, I said. An ethnography of musicians and audiences involves similar interviewing and analysis skills as a user test for software, for example. Learning to generate buy-in for policy involves as much of a critical high-level understanding of people’s preferences as any market research job.

But I think this point was leading to something more fundamental. I see the skills across all disciplines as transferable to most forms of work. I believe this is because most academic study can be generalized to understanding the mechanisms behind the processes of the world.

History is about looking at facts of how humans and states (as organizations of some humans representing other humans) chose to act and about understanding the reasons that they did so, and then spotting patterns between similar actions to formulate an underlying mechanism of how humans and groups act in different scenarios. Abstracted to this level, one begins to see similarities with sociology and psychology. The natural sciences are about understanding the mechanisms of organisms and substances behind their phenomenal appearance. It is about identifying and mapping the patterns of movement and change in the natural world. Much of engineering relies on being able to use these patterns to aid human action.

Behind every field of study there is the logic of causation. X causes Y which leads to Z which implies something else. The primary structure of an argument remains the same. Each field of study involves a combination of finding evidence and reasoning to explain a process that entails the evidence. And as we learn more we become more adept at understanding more complex processes and more complex reasoning. We learn both to abstract so that we can build on each other’s work and to dissect so that we can build our own understanding. Theoretically, given enough background knowledge, some abstraction (and belief that abstracted parts of processes work as expected) and the skills of logic, most fields of study should be within the grasp of a diligent student.

The point here being that education is really similar across the board. We may be ignorant about many parts of many fields, but that does not imply that we are stupid and will be unable to understand the field at all.

Underlying my interviewer’s question may be the assumption that the lack of domain-specific knowledge may render someone useless for a given set of tasks. I find this assertion problematic because I see all aspects of the educational process as a struggle to build competency with understanding the mechanisms that underlie our world in one form or another. Intelligent minds should be able to switch domains and learn to paddle around them given good experience in the core art of following an argument.

The implication here is that to me, learning domain-specific knowledge is like moving to a new house. You must relearn the little things such as how long it now takes to get from home to work, but you don’t forget the core art of transporting yourself from one place to another.

For this reason, anytime I see the argument that my educational background (i.e. what major I am) dictates what sort of work I can succeed at and add to, I find it problematic. I see this when courses are reserved only for members of certain departments, when I witness the possible difficulty of changing fields between undergraduate and graduate study and every time someone stereotypes my major.

There’s a part of Sufi thought that argues that divine inspiration and realization can only be witnessed by a select, blessed few. Many see this as an elitist aspect of Sufism. I think that our prohibitive attitudes to diversity of study as mentioned above are also elitist because they assume that a concentration may limit one’s scope of thought — by extension implying that certain forms of thought can only be accessible to certain kinds of people. Be it in school or at the workplace, an inclination to educational diversity should be welcomed, not rejected.

I think the struggle to understand the mechanisms of the world is a process in which we all take part in order to obtain a better conception of the Truth about our world. Given the universality of this objective and of thought itself, knowledge should be available to anyone to understand and build on.