U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Idea of Specialization: John Higham On Its Roots, Nature, And Consequences

This post was originally going to be my contribution to David Sehat and Mike O’Connor’s “reading of interest” series. As I thought more about it, however, it seemed that the topic of my reading—specialization—deserved stand-alone treatment.

Recently I completed several essays from the John Higham collection, Hanging Together: Unity and Diversity in American Culture (edited by Carl J. Guarneri, Yale Press, 2001). I first encountered the collection in 2002-03 while studying for my doctoral field exams. My hope then was to fill out my thinking on the concept of “democratic culture,” a central idea in my dissertation. I don’t immediately recall how Higham helped me there, but I remember being impressed with Higham’s sense of historiography (one of his specialties) and larger currents in U.S. history. Besides, studying for qualifying exams is partly an exercise in short-term memory optimization—otherwise known as “cramming.” Even though one can take a year or more to study for these comprehensive field exams, cramming still becomes at least a minor part of the process.

I picked up the collection again this year because I wanted help in assessing turn-of-the-century intellectual issues. I was trying to rethink a paper I’ve presented on the People’s Institute of New York City’s Cooper Union. I targeted five essays in the book (listed here in order of presentation): “Hanging Together: Divergent Unities in American History” (1974), “Rediscovering the Pragmatic American” (1986), “Specialization in a Democracy” (1979), “Multiculturalism and Universalism: A History and Critique” (1993), and “The Future of American History” (1994). While all of these essays have their merits, I want focus here on “Specialization in a Democracy” (66-82). Recounting its topics will give you another slice of Higham’s mind, and aid me in remembering the larger points of article.

Sally Griffith’s pre-essay overview—each contains a one-age introduction, or “headnote,” written by a former students—informs the reader that Higham wrote this piece as an introduction to the 1979 classic, The Organization of Knowledge in Modern America, 1860-1920 (edited by Alexandra Oleson and John Voss, Johns Hopkins). [If you have JSTOR, here’s a review.]

The thesis of that book, according to Higham, was that “between 1860 and 1920 the modern organization of knowledge came into being” (p. 67). Despite the fact that many attribute this to “outside” forces, to “change[s] in conditions of employment ” and the professionalization of American life in general, the essays in Organization point toward specialization. Higham continued: “Indeed, the rampant growth of specialization pervades, as no other theme does, the history of knowledge in the period under examination. It is so ubiquitous that historians have taken it for granted, as if it were one of the constants of nature…rather than one of the riddles of history” (p. 68).

Higham’s sense was that earlier in the nineteenth century various institutions “accommodated increasing specialization” while maintaining a dominant generalist culture. An egalitarian, Jacksonian America held a “disdain for esoteric knowledge.” But by the end of the century higher education and American culture were “transformed” by specialization. Somehow, “resistance to specialization markedly declined” (p. 68-69). Higham noted: “Of the leading countries in the Western world, the United States in 1830 was perhaps the least specialized and surely the most committed to the omnicompetence of the ordinary citizen. By 1920, however, America had embraced the specialist and sanctified the expert with an enthusiasm unmatched elsewhere” (p. 70). Higham linked this, in part, to Herbert Spencer, who Higham argued “stands out for his comforting faith in specialization as the universal law of progress” (p. 72).

John Dewey might have significantly altered the trend, Higham felt, but instead “circled warily around the question of specialization,” believing it “could and should be compatible with breadth.” Dewey only critiqued “overspecialization,” but didn’t define it well against specialization in general. Dewey, in the end, never offered an appraisal or criticism of one of the major intellectual developments of his lifetime (p. 72).

Higham connects the change for specialization to a post-Civil reaction against democratic excesses. He asserts that “men of science and men of letters” deliberately sought to create new, authoritative class of “technical elites” through specialization. This idealistic, elitist group sought to bring into being “a higher order of things” (p. 74-75). This “apparent contradiction” between keeping democracy alive and fostering specialization resulted in four new turn-of-the-century developments:

1. Creating a standard entrance requirement into the world specialization: the Ph.D. This involved a bastardization of the original, German Ph.D. idea (p. 76-78);
2. Formulating university departments to create a society of equals among these specialists (p. 78);
3. Founding multipurpose agencies to foster research, such as research libraries and grant-giving foundations (p. 78-79); and
4. Creating new reference tools to coordinate specialized knowledge (indexes, catalogues, digests, the Library of Congress classification system, etc.).

All of these factors should contribute to what Higham called, in 1979, the “still unwritten general history of specialization” (p. 68).

Has this history been written? Unless it’s in a relatively anonymous dissertation, I can’t think of a work that has built on Higham’s essay and those included in The Organization of Knowledge in Modern America. Am I uninformed? Perhaps this spadework has been done by a non-historian?

I mentioned above that each essay in Hanging Together was preceded by a headnote from a former student. My dissertation director, Lewis Erenberg, wrote the introduction to Higham’s 1965 cultural history classic, “The Reorientation of American Culture in the 1890s.” That article assesses the cultural and psychological upheavals the came about at the end of the Gilded Age. Erenberg so admired this and other Higham essays that he argued for Higham as being one of the profession’s supreme essayists (in Mid-America‘s tribute edition to Higham, vol. 82, nos. 1-2, Winter/Summer 2000, p. 15-16).

After (re)reading the piece on specialization and others in Hanging Together, I’m inclined to agree. – TL

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  1. Curious…are you aware of any research that has been done on the impact that specializaton in America has had on business?

  2. Dear Anon,

    Alfred Chandler’s The Visible Hand will probably suit your needs. But overall, yes, there are a lot of books that cover the consequences of specialization in industry, service, management, etc. Chandler’s covers management in particular.

    But I give this advice with the caveat that I’m ~by no means~ a historian of business.

    – TL

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