Should humans be more like black bears or snail kites?

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

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I stumbled across this quote on a blog post today and it reminded me of some recent conversations I’ve had with several people about working for the same organization or at the same job for 30 years. Taking the 30-year career path may make you a master at your particular job, but it could also make you extinct.  In today’s economy when so many have lost their jobs and are unable to find work, being a generalist has to be a good thing. If you are competent at many different skills, then you are more likely to find work and make a living. If you only know how to do one thing, there better be a market for that skill or you starve.

The same holds true in the natural world. Animals who are generalists in feeding habits – like black bears that move from habitat to habitat depending on the season and forage for a variety of foods – are better able to sustain themselves when times get tough and certain foods are in short supply. Snail kites, on the other hand, are so specialized that they eat apple snails almost exclusively, and so when water levels fluctuate and snails die off during long periods of drought or flood, the kites cannot find food.

I have been out of college for 30 years, but I have not done the “30-year career thing”.  I have had exactly 13 different jobs since I graduated from college (14 if you count being a full-time, stay-at-home mom for awhile). Do the math – yes, I have averaged changing jobs every two years. Some have lasted 4 years, some 3 months, most 2-3 years. It’s not that I can’t hold a job. It’s just that I love change and challenge, and I love learning how to do new things. So, when a challenge or opportunity arises, I go for it.  This career pattern has made me a generalist. And while I’m not sure if I could conn a ship as Heinlein suggests above, I can do a lot of other things fairly well – from fighting wildfires to designing professional development workshops.

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Being a generalist has given me the confidence to handle change. And isn’t that a good thing in the world today? Asimov said: “The only constant is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be.

As an educator, I wonder – are we preparing our students to be generalists, to learn how to learn and unlearn and re-learn new skills, to take known skills into a new situation and make them useful, to survive in a “world as it will be” not a world that has been? Are we measuring those skills? Or are we simply teaching them how to be good standardized test-takers? If we were to measure the set of generalist skills Heinlein suggests in the opening quote, what would those assessments be like?

What do you think? Should we teach kids how to be black bears or snail kites?

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