About a decade ago, a first-generation freshman came into my office for her first academic advising meeting. As we talked through her set of classes, I asked her in what she thought she would like to major. With downcast eyes and quiet voice, she told me that she had no idea. In that instant, I realized that I had shamed this exceptional young woman who had worked so hard to land a sizable academic fellowship. No doubt she had been asked repeatedly in the prior three days of orientation in what she wanted to major: each time, the question creating a small chink in the armor protecting her thin self-confidence. I recovered quickly and told her that she was one of the brave souls who were willing to learn for its own sake and explore different topics for their inherent value. She needn’t lock herself into a specialty so soon.
Her shame in not knowing in what she wanted to major is too common in so many other students at their first advising sessions, but there shouldn’t be any surprise in this. The pressure to specialize starts early and stays with us at throughout our professional careers. Pre-teens are expected to pick one sport and play it year-round. General Practitioners in medicine are not held in the same regard as their specialist colleagues and, as the above story attests, even in a Liberal Arts setting, students feel the pressure to funnel themselves quickly into specialized knowledge areas. While I recognize that there are benefits to specialization, I grieve at how it has infiltrated so much of what we believe to be good, right, and necessary. I long for a less utilitarian approach to learning, work, and life in general. I long for more dilettantes.
Needless to say, I understand that almost no one wants to be labeled a “dilettante.” We consider dilettantes to be lightweights; people who are not quite serious enough or up to the task of mastering their field. But this has not always been the case. The Oxford English Dictionary points to the original meaning of dilettante as “a lover of the fine arts; originally, one who cultivates them for the love of them rather than professionally.” In 1732, a group of British gentlemen who had been entranced by their European tours founded The Society of the Dilettanti whose purpose was to sponsor further study of cultural, architectural, archeological, aesthetic, and historical matters. Historian James Kelley notes that it became one of the most prominent and influential societies of the British Enlightenment.1 But with the rise of the professional class in the late eighteenth century, “dilettante” became synonymous with “amateur” and as the OED tells us, for the past 150 years it has been applied more or less depreciatively to one who “interests himself in an art or science merely as a pastime and without serious aim or study (‘a mere dilettante’).” I would argue that the term, as it is used now, is even more derisive than the portrayal of an amateur, describing those who are only interested in the trivial or pontificating further than their knowledge should allow, learning without the hard work of loving. But to go back to the original definition, being a dilettante, as one who desires and is committed to knowledge, truth, and understanding, requires, as Philosopher Jason Baer writes, the practice of intellectual virtues such as curiosity, intellectual courage, open-mindedness, and intellectual humility.2 There is nothing lightweight about learning for its own sake.
Ironically, there is a utilitarian role for the love of learning. The intellectual virtue of curiosity is the seedbed for creativity. Social Psychologist Theresa Amabile is best known for her research on the relationship between individual creativity and innovation in organizations. She and her colleagues3 have repeatedly shown that while creativity requires specialized knowledge and skills, greater expertise does not improve creativity; in fact, the opposite is often true. In the brain, specialized knowledge creates neurological superhighways that allow for quick processing of defined problems. But those highways have few on or off ramps to other knowledge clusters in the brain which can make it difficult to explore new cognitive pathways, take on new perspectives, or more importantly, identify new problems or opportunities, all of which are at the heart of creativity. Amabile has found that while specialized knowledge needs to be good enough, curiosity and a love for what one is doing are creativity’s secret sauces.
Professor Tom McLeish, Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of York made a related point in this year’s International Society for Science and Religion’s Boyle lecture, which he titled, “The Rediscovery of Contemplation Through Science.”4 He said that science has lost some of its own creativity as it turned from “the appreciation of imagination as a legitimate pathway to knowledge, in partnership with reason, to an elevation of reason alone.” McLeish emphasized that while we use the scientific method to test our hypotheses, contemplation and imagination are necessary to create hypotheses in the first place.
Christians are well suited to be dilletantes because learning is a matter of character for us. We care about investigating the special revelation in God’s Word, the general revelation in His World, and the dialogue between the two. We believe that all truth is God’s truth wherever we may find it so that loving learning is a form of loving God. Being a specialist is not so special in God’s Kingdom. I’d be delighted to be a dilettante.
- Read more about Jason Kelly’s work at https://jasonmkelly.com/jason-m-kelly/2012/03/27/the-society-of-dilettanti-and-the-planning-of-a-museum
- Jason Baehr, “Educating for Intellectual Virtues: From Theory to Practice,” Journal of Philosophy of Education 47:2, (2013), 248 – 262.
- Teresa M. Amabile and Michael G. Pratt, “The dynamic componential model of creativity and innovation in organizations: Making progress, making meaning,”Research in Organizational Behavior, 36, (2016), 157-183.