By Jonathan Sherbino (@sherbino)
“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.” –Robert A. Heinlein
Early in my clinical training, as I was contemplating a career as an academic physician, the repeated advice (solicited and often unsolicited) that I received was FOCUS. Essentially, the message was that the key to academic success was in dedicating attention and scholarship to a very finite niche. In doing so, the argument went, you could develop efficiencies (learning background knowledge, building networks, attending continuing education events) if the academic scope was restricted. And then I went out and started an academic career as a … CE.
By definition, the competencies that inform a Clinician Educator are general. Is this a bad thing? Should CEs heed the advice I was given at the start of my career?
Tim Ferris, an education hacker (i.e. an individual who deconstructs abilities into essential elements to promote rapid learning) has questioned the championing of the specialist. Here are some excerpts from his blog on the topic of reasons to be a jack-of-all-trades (with annotations from me).
In a world of dogmatic specialists, it’s the generalist who ends up running the show.
Is the CEO a better accountant than the CFO or CPA? Was Steve Jobs a better programmer than top coders at Apple? No, but he had a broad range of skills and saw the unseen interconnectedness. As technology becomes a commodity with the democratization of information, it’s the big-picture generalists who will predict, innovate, and rise to power fastest. There is a reason military “generals” are called such. The same argument can be made in medical education. Linking education theory (from specialized education researchers) to clinical practice (for specialized clinicians) is the unique domain of the CE.
Boredom is failure.
For many in a first-world economy…, Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs drives us to need more… Lack of intellectual stimulation… is what drives us to … emotional bankruptcy. Generalizing and experimenting prevents this, while over-specialization guarantees it.
The academic diversity that I enjoy as a CE provides professional satisfaction that cannot be filled by a tightly defined and narrow professional niche.
Diversity of intellectual playgrounds breeds confidence instead of fear of the unknown.
It also breeds empathy with the broadest range of human conditions and appreciation of the broadest range of human accomplishments. The alternative is … defensive xenophobia and smugness…
Solving complex education problems, developing innovative curricula, appropriating technologies for innovative learning strategies are all core tasks of CEs. These are the challenges that a specialist might avoid.
CEs are generalists. Specialization is for insects. 🙂
Image 1 courtesy of ciandress.com
Image 2 courtesy of of Sean.hoyland, via Wikimedia Commons