معمارِ حرم باز بہ تعمیرِ جہاں خیز
از خوابِ گِراں خوابِ گِراں خوابِ گِراں خیز
ادھر آ ستمگر ہنر آزمائیں
تو تیر آزما ہم جِگر آزمائیں

Friday, 25 September 2009

Education and Platonic Specialization

More often than not we come across someone propagating specialization in each and every sphere of human activity. Some people even go to the extent of condemning those who delve in field to which they have not been related up till now. This opposition brings forward the following argument in one way or other;

“This is an age of specialization, today everybody tries to specialize and master his field. The world of today is so advanced that nobody can and nor should try to be ‘Jack-of-all-trades’ rather you should try and be a master of your own. Therefore you should quit reading and especially writing on philosophy. I should rather concentrate on my own course and if interested in writing I should try and write on issues related to my degree.”

An initial look at study of philosophy and philosophers from Plato and Aristotle to Al-Farabi all seem to support the notion of specialization. All of them were of the view that a man can do only one thing good and therefore should concentrate on that and not try to do anything else as he is not good enough in that trade.

In words of Plato in his book “The Republic”, Plato argues for specialization in following words;

The barest notion of a state must include four or five men. And how will they proceed? Will each bring the result of his labour in common stock? The individual husbandman, for example, producing for four, and labouring four times as long and as much as he need in the provision of food with which he supplies others as well as himself; or will he have nothing to do with others and not be at trouble of producing for them, but provide for himself alone a fourth of food in a fourth of time, and in the remaining three fourth of his time be employed in making a house or a coat or a pair of shoes, having no partnership with others, but supplying himself all his own wants?

I am myself reminded that we are not all alike; there are diversities of natures among us which are adapted to different occupations. Will you have a work better done when the workman has many occupations, or when he has only one? When he has only one. (1)

In the above words of Plato, it is better for the society when everybody does what he is best at doing and let others do everything else or we should try and achieve specialization in something rather than trying and doing everything by ourselves.

These ideas echo through the writings of Aristotle as well. Aristotle was also of the view that people are better off doing what they are better at doing rather than doing anything else. This in essence means that a cobbler should not do the work of husbandman and nor should a husbandman try and do the work of a cobbler. The reason given by Aristotle is similar to that of his teacher, Plato. Aristotle argues that a person can only achieve near-perfection in one thing only; therefore they should rather stick to that as a profession and means of earning money. In this way when they would hire a cobbler to mend their shoes he because of being more skilled in the art of mending shoes would mend them better than the person himself would do it. In this way there would be a society with higher living standards.

During the medieval times, Arab philosophers followed suit with their Greek predecessors and agreed with them on the issue of specialization. The support for the idea of specialization is shown by Averroes in his book named “Averroes commentary on Plato’s republic”. In his commentary he supports the views held by Plato on the issue of specialization. The reason that Averroes associates to this view of his is same that is given by Plato himself. In the same way another medieval Arab philosopher Al-Farabi also hold the same views at that of Averroes and essentially those of Plato in his philosophical works. Although he does not address the issue of specialization in his famous work of “On the Perfect State” directly, but it is construed from the situation he builds for the ideal state. Al-Farabi writes:

The excellent city resembles the perfect and healthy body, all of whose limbs co-operate to make the life of the animal perfect and to preserve it in this state. Now the limbs and organs of the body are different and their natural endowments and faculties are unequal in excellence (2)

Many people use the quotations like those of above to support the issue of specialization. The same attitude is followed by Ibn Khaldun who is known for his great work called, “The Muqaddimah”. In this book he states in support of the idea of specialization:

Each particular king of craft needs persons to be in charge of it and skilled in it. The more numerous the various subdivisions of a craft are, the larger the number of the people who (have to) practice that craft. The particular group (practicing that craft) is coloured by it. As the days follow one upon the other, and one professional colouring comes after the other, the crafts colouring men become experienced in their various crafts and skilled in the knowledge of them. Long periods of time and the repetition of similar (experiences) add to establishing the crafts and to causing them to be firmly rooted”. (3)

In more recent times this ideas of Ibn Khaldun have reached us through the works of Adam Smith and Keynes, as their works are strikingly similar to what was achieved by Ibn Khaldun in late 1300s early 1400s. The above excerpt for the support of specialization echoes through the writings of Adam smith as well in his book called “The Wealth of Nations.”.

If a society is built on principles that all of the above philosophers agree upon, then in essence everybody would be made to focus totally on a chosen field and strictly discouraged to acquire any other non-relevant skills. I do not have any issues with this theory of specialization and nor do I stand against the Idea of specialization, for I do believe that It will make us to achieve better results in which ever field it is applied. But I do seriously think that this concept of specialization has been mis-used in areas where it should not have been applied as in the case given at the beginning of this article.

What needs to be understood and taken into consideration in all the above paragraphs is that they all talk about skills of a human being or craft in case of Ibn Khaldun. The skills and knowledge must be strictly differentiated. Knowledge is not and should not be restricted, while the skills of the respective group of practical fields can be different depending upon the different personalities of people and their different aptitudes. Here I would like to add that engineering, mathematics, medicine and jurisprudence might require aptitude and training to enhance the skills but social sciences must be considered as universal knowledge. The social sciences must be taught to everybody from every field of life.

The reason for the exception of social sciences is that social sciences concern the whole society and people have to live in a society. In order to ensure that everybody abides by his social responsibilities and knows his social rights, it is important that everybody knows how the society operates and what are the reasons behind certain social behaviours? This will enable everybody to play a positive and constructive role in the progress of the society. The lack of education on social sciences and eroding interest of people in wake of rigorous specialization will lead a society into degrading social behaviours. This includes degrading moral and ethical values.

This group of social sciences should include sociology, ethics, morality and basic economics. First three of stated social sciences should be included so that to educate masses about social behaviours, to educate them on how to behave socially. This will help in making a stable and well mannered society, where people are caring about one another and are not treated unjustly by anybody who can treat them unjustly. This will not only minimize cheating in a society rather will also reduce crime rates of the society.

The masses should also be educated on at least basic economics because this is what governs most of people’s lives. If you consider a democratic society for the sake of argument, there people are the authority and have a say in every matter of the state. In this situation if people are not capable enough to judge economic policies and effects they will have on themselves as people and on the society as a whole. When a normal person is uneducated himself on these issues, he will have to depend on ‘other’ people to form any opinion on these issues. If such ‘illiteracy’ prevails at mass level, this means masses are dependent upon few ‘educated’ ones. In today’s world this job will be done by media, which is owned by corporations. ‘Experts’ appearing on this media will try and corroborate and propagate the views that are supported by owner of that channel. In this way opinion about any policy matters will be formed by this media, which can choose to support any policy or criticise and policy at its own behest. This effectively gives power to rich of the society as they are the ones who would own these media channels. This will make democracy into an oligarchy where rich will rule from behind the curtain while people will be made to believe using the same corporate media that they live in a democracy. This will therefore make a society very vulnerable to any adventurism and make a democratic society to crumble or be hijacked, as media would control thought process of people using intellectuals who conform to their interests or using pseudo-intellectuals who propagate interests of the channel.

What should be strictly differentiated is difference between skills and social sciences which educate people about societal knowledge. While making very advanced levels of any subject compulsory would be cruel to pupil, devoiding them of even basic education on these fields would be tantamount to enslaving them and leaving them at the behest of corporations, plus would degrade the moral value and thus social strata of the society.


1. Plato. The Republic. Athens : The Liberty Fund Inc., 387 BC. Vol. 2.

2. AlFarabi. On the Perfect State. [trans.] Richard Walzer. s.l. : Great Books of Islamic World. The original was in Arabic and then translated into English. 1-871031-76-1.

3. Khaldun, Ibn. “the Muqaddimah”: An Introduction to History. [trans.] Franz Rosenthal. s.l. : Princeton University Press, 1967. The original is in Arabic and then translated to english. 0-691-12054-4.

No comments: