In Which Our Heroine Ponders Well-Roundedness

2 April 2004

I loved Dogland. Definitely recommended. I do think that Will Shetterly's God is wrong, though, because Will Shetterly's God sugars lefse, and One Does Not. Well, my dad does, so at least one does. Probably thousands do. But it's just not right.

I've started From the Teeth of Angels, which almost guarantees me more dogs in my reading, since it's Jonathan Carroll. The cover and the title make me think I've read it before, but it's not on my list. A lot of older Jonathan Carroll stuff looks alike. I wonder how much that serves to sell people on it as a known good read and how much it makes them think, "Neh, I've already read that one" and move on to something else? Hard to say. Not a Pinsky moment, though. I refuse to make it a Pinsky moment. Stupid Pinsky. Always popping up in my head with Bash-o.

It's that kind of morning, I'm afraid.

I've been on the verge of too tired for a couple of weeks now. I've been getting almost enough sleep every night -- there's only been one night wherein I clearly got insufficient sleep -- and yet it's not quite enough, and I'm tired. We spring ahead on Sunday, and I'm hoping that if I continue going to bed after the Daily Show and waking up when the light comes in my windows, that'll do for more sleep for awhile. Maybe. We'll give it a shot and see if it works.

I was talking to Columbine about geekery, and it got me thinking about well-roundedness. I think well-roundedness is a goal, for some people a good goal, but not the goal. Not everybody's goal, and I don't think it should be. I think our high schools are trying to be geared towards well-roundedness, with no majors and a wide variety of requirements. I went to a liberal arts college, another bastion of lip service to the well-rounded ideal. Let me tell you: I have no idea why some of these people went to a liberal arts college. I really don't. And do I think that all or most of the people who came out of these institutions were well-rounded? Nope. And do I think they should have been? Probably not.

Attempts to make people who have no interest in rounding out their knowledge or abilities into the liberal arts ideal will fail, and will also serve to annoy the people who come closer to the liberal arts ideal in the first place. Being forced to play "aerobic football" in high school gym did not make me a more multifaceted person; it just gave me further data to back up my hatred of aerobic football. Sitting in classes with people who were determined not to learn anything that wasn't on the test didn't give me well-rounded compatriots, capable of discussing my various interests intelligently. It meant that the professor had to deal with innumerable whines and stupid questions about what would be on the final, and it took up class time. I've known cases where someone who was generally interested in learning new things liked a class unexpectedly (like my mom with physics), but I've never known anyone who was only interested in one specific thing to have their mind changed by a required class.

To me, being well-rounded or deeply focused is like being an introvert or extrovert: it's a way that you are, not a moral judgment. A grown-up should be able to deal an evening by him/herself without going entirely crazy; a grown-up should be able to get through the amount of human contact necessary to feed him/herself without going entirely crazy. Beyond that, make yourself happy with your introversion or extroversion. Embrace it. Enjoy it. Maybe fiddle with it, see what's enough and what's too much. But don't make yourself miserable trying to have the kind of brain you don't have.

On the well-roundedness front, I have a brain that works efficiently in different ways. I'm lucky. I've always had an easy time with musical instruments, with languages, with math; this is not at all due to some virtue on my part. It's the brain I got handed. Other people get brains that only want to deal with musical instruments efficiently, or only languages, or only math. Refusing to learn to balance one's checkbook is not an acceptable option for a grown-up, but having no interest in calculus is not a moral failing. Once you get past basic issues of taking care of yourself, I don't think there's a right answer for how many different fields of interest you should have.

If I'd taken another example, a non-math example, I think I'd get more disagreement. People are totally willing to accept that someone is "well-rounded" who can't do a simple derivative, because math is socially acceptable to skip or find hard. But in any case, well-roundedness is going to be in the eye of the beholder. Do you have to know a little something about history to be well-rounded? Or a little something about different "major" fields of history, and which ones are major? How many languages other than your mother tongue must you speak to be well-rounded? One? Three? Seven? Zero? I already know a lot more about writing than I do about roofing, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't spend any more time on writing and should immediately get to it with the roofing.

I think there's a trend towards "letting the specialists handle it," and I don't think that's a good thing when it substitutes for informing oneself. You don't have to be an educational professional to know if your kid isn't learning to read or really doesn't understand fractions. You don't have to be a medical professional to know that if your doctor says your debilitating chest pains are probably nothing, you should talk to a different doctor. But there's a value to depth of knowledge that I think is getting lost in our culture, especially when it's knowledge for its own sake. And within the limits of your own abilities, you'll have to choose between breadth and depth regularly. Not permanently, but regularly. I don't think breadth should automatically get the upper hand. "Well-rounded" is not an unlimited good, not an ultimate compliment. Sometimes it really is just time to geek out on one particular thing.

Like now, for example.

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