08 November 2006

Insecurities of a Jack

There are only two kinds of people who are really fascinating: people who know absolutely everything, and people who know absolutely nothing.
- Oscar Wilde
Ever since I was five years old, I've known what I wanted to do with my life. No, not in terms of a career or practical goals--if you've been reading this blog, you may have noticed I still have no idea what I want in that area. I'm talking about a bigger, more general picture. I have one of those: when I started school, I decided my goal was to know everything.

In the ensuing years, I've been confronted many times with the fact that this goal is not precisely realistic. But that hasn't stopped me from trying. Evidence: majoring in Chemistry and English, watching PBS all the time, surfing Wikipedia, and reading *gasp* non-fiction in my spare time.

And in general, I like my way of doing things--gathering random bits of knowledge and stringing them together so they catch the light of truth in new ways. I'm personally not in favor of our current system of education, wherein we teach people more and more about less and less. In the end, society ends up with a bunch of people who excel in their one little area, but are so entrenched in their dogma that they have difficultly seeing the connections and applications to other areas. And since the rest of us are equally busy in our little cells of knowledge, we can't learn from anything the others find. It seems to me to be a very inefficient method of discovering knowledge. (Yes, I realize there's some necessity for specialization in order to get in deep enough to really push the envelope, but I think we take it too far.)

Gathering knowledge from all these different areas has allowed me to think and learn in so many different ways. However, there's a definite problem with being a jack of all trades, and master of none. And that is that I feel very insecure about my knowledge. I know just enough in almost any area (excepting perhaps music) to know exactly how ignorant I actually am. I feel fine holding a conversation with someone who isn't familiar with the subject, but if I'm forced into a conversation in someone else's area of expertise--almost everything is--then I'm junk. I'm good at thinking about all sorts of problems, but I lack the well of facts necessary to match wits with someone who knows the territory. Sometimes I can get around this problem by drawing analogies to other areas of knowledge that they aren't as familiar with, but sometimes not.

It's quite disconcerting because I know I'm a knowledgeable, intelligent person, and yet so many times, I find myself stuck on the listening end of a rant because I lack the specialization to combat it. So irritating, yet I still feel no desire to specialize. Somewhere inside I'm absolutely convinced that I just need more time to gather more facts, that I'll eventually find an end to my quest for knowledge of everything.

But it seems an awfully long way away.

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