Where have all the generalists gone?

Centuries ago everyone was a generalist. People had to grow their own food, fix their own tools, doctor their animals and to a large extent, themselves. The industrial revolution changed much of that and urbanization naturally made us more specialized.

As time passed, our education also became more specialized. Career paths became narrower and skillsets more defined. We want our children to choose a career before many have an inkling of what they want to do. Moreover, few even really know what they’re good at.

I often chide students about their desire to improve their written and oral communication skills. “I’m going to be a mechanical engineer, I need to be good at math not writing,” one might say.

Excuse me? Writing and speaking effectively are important for everyone. Broadening horizons can also help one ace an interview, too. Well rounded people better adapt to a changing world, but still it seems everyone wants to be a specialist. We do need them, but we need people who can connect seemingly unrelated dots too.

My great grandfather and namesake had a blacksmith’s shop. He also raised silver foxes and like everyone else at the time, he farmed. He also made himself into a proficient mechanic. Those old guys could do it all. They had to.

My father-in-law had only an eighth grade education, but he amassed more practical veterinary skills on a shoestring budget than anyone else I’ve ever known. When he was a kid he attached himself to the local vet and had no inhibitions about applying what he saw. He was the first one neighbors called when they had sick livestock.

He basically worked for free, but his results were consistently positive. Old school country people were also adept at tasks such as canning, butchering and smoking meat. They also knew what wild plants they could gather. Self-sufficiency is becoming a lost art.

Some say being a jack of all trades means being a master of none. Others say you won’t succeed at interviews unless you show a single special skill. I disagree. You can be a master of many, maybe not a world authority, but I believe one can be effective at many things and better adapt to a changing world. Look at da Vinci or Benjamin Franklin.

Acquiring multiple skills makes life more interesting. I enjoy not doing the exact same thing all the time. Pursuing the dollar isn’t all bad, but it should not be one’s primary focus. Quality of life encompasses intangibles that can’t be satisfied by material things.

Despite the questionable reputation of many of our young people I love going to work every day. Each one is different. In any given day I may teach about horticulture, veterinary science, or natural resource management. None of these areas is probably my strength.  I’m much more competent at my wild plants than the cultivated ones. Sometimes I even see myself as a dinosaur.

However, the focus is not to make kids experts at these fields. That would be nice, but I simply want to teach them how to think. Then they have a better chance to succeed either as a generalist or a specialist. It’s also a pretty cool thing to be able to learn to utilize more of the bounties surrounding us.


Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I now teach agriculture to high school students at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City, NC. My wife teaches with me and we make a great team. I also write a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper (dailyadvance.com). I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that I plan to publish eventually. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone, a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. Never Alone is now available in paperback, Kindle and Nook. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death. In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books.
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