Techies and Fuzzies

Posted: June 23, 2009 in Education, Idealism, Nomenclature

During a drinking expedition with a few coworkers, the friendly conversation turned toward the curious directions we all take in life and how many of us probably wouldn’t choose the same college major today with the benefit of hindsight. The enthusiasm of youth lends itself toward declarations of life-long fidelity to some field about which one feels passion, or perhaps more typically, one drifts purposelessly into a major only to discover at some later time what would have been a better choice. That isn’t to say anyone should live with regrets for not knowing something before being prepared to know it. Such wisdom has a tendency to be acquired after it’s already relatively useless, which calls to mind the George Bernard Shaw remark that youth is wasted on the young.

All this was preliminary to what could have been an ugly dispute: the value of a liberal arts education versus a technical or professional degree. Being clever folks, we deftly and diplomatically avoided extreme positions and agreed that both types are necessary for a pluralistic society — sometimes even coexisting in one person. One of the older, wiser in the group offered for use techie and fuzzy. Both terms are pretty reductive and not so charitable, depending on how one interprets them, but everyone understood the harmless intent. He also communicated his surprise that his daughter, who had excelled at precisely the techie subjects that are stereotypically rare among females, later took an abrupt turn toward the fuzzy side in graduate school. By my lights, it’s a fairly logical development for anyone leaning somewhat heavily to one side or the other to become interested in contrasting disciplines. Curious people break new ground again and again throughout life, which isn’t something that one can typically do by continuously deepening knowledge within a single field. Of course, extremely high achievers do tend to focus exclusively on one subject and are accordingly vulnerable to character distortions and notorious blind spots.

My own trajectory is fairly typical. Without revealing too much, I focused my early efforts on a fuzzy subject, which in its more advanced stages began to rather paradoxically take on the flavor of vocational school, which while not quite being techie was very much applied. While I continue working in the field, I’ve become an autodidact in a number of other disciplines that offer new perspectives on the world. Although I have no regrets other than I can’t do it all again and again, I’ve wondered if an education in anthropology or Western intellectual history would have launched me sooner in the areas of my current interest. These are arguably just more fuzzy subjects to add to my principal focus, but I’m less concerned with covering all parts of the spectrum than I am in seeking out what interests me now.

One further comment: a Classical education (the study of the art, literature, languages, culture, and history of ancient Greece and Rome) strikes most people as hopelessly remote and pointless in the modern world. To the contrary, as history plods on, it’s clear that we are little closer to solving the quintessential problems of the human condition (a fuzzy issue) than were the ancients, despite our putatively impressive techie prowess. This is sometimes regarded as the intent behind the Shakespearean line that there is nothing new under the sun — human nature remains essentially unchanged. And not so surprisingly, if craftsmanship interests you, I have heard that the History Channel show Life After People suggests that the architectural works of the ancients may actually prove more enduring than anything we have managed in since the Industrial Revolution.

  1. An educational foundation allowing one to do as you did–the ability to teach yourself whatever piques your interest–sounds like true freedom. Your inner life is yours to explore.
    As to common success and how you may rate career- and income-wise, I think, people run into the same limits posed by the collegiate techie vs. fuzzie quandary.

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