An Age of Specialisation, by H. G. Wells
Looks at the World
There is something of the phonograph in all of us, but in the sort of
eminent person who makes public speeches about education and reading,
and who gives away prizes and opens educational institutions, there
seems to be little else but gramophone.
These people always say the same things, and say them in the same note.
And why should they do that if they are really individuals?
There is, I cannot but suspect, in the mysterious activities that
underlie life, some trade in records for these distinguished
gramophones, and it is a trade conducted upon cheap and wholesale lines.
There must be in these demiurgic profundities a rapid manufacture of
innumerable thousands of that particular speech about "scrappy reading,"
and that contrast of "modern" with "serious" literature, that babbles
about in the provinces so incessantly. Gramophones thinly disguised as
bishops, gramophones still more thinly disguised as eminent statesmen,
gramophones K.C.B. and gramophones F.R.S. have brazened it at us time
after time, and will continue to brazen it to our grandchildren when we
are dead and all our poor protests forgotten. And almost equally popular
in their shameless mouths is the speech that declares this present age
to be an age of specialisation. We all know the profound droop of the
eminent person's eyelids as he produces that discovery, the edifying
deductions or the solemn warnings he unfolds from this proposition, and
all the dignified, inconclusive rigmarole of that cylinder. And it is
nonsense from beginning to end.
This is most distinctly not an age of specialisation. There has hardly
been an age in the whole course of history less so than the present. A
few moments of reflection will suffice to demonstrate that. This is
beyond any precedent an age of change, change in the appliances of life,
in the average length of life, in the general temper of life; and the
two things are incompatible. It is only under fixed conditions that you
can have men specialising.
They specialise extremely, for example, under such conditions as one had
in Hindustan up to the coming of the present generation. There the metal
worker or the cloth worker, the wheelwright or the druggist of yesterday
did his work under almost exactly the same conditions as his predecessor
did it five hundred years before. He had the same resources, the same
tools, the same materials; he made the same objects for the same ends.
Within the narrow limits thus set him he carried work to a fine
perfection; his hand, his mental character were subdued to his medium.
His dress and bearing even were distinctive; he was, in fact, a highly
specialised man. He transmitted his difference to his sons. Caste was
the logical expression in the social organisation of this state of high
specialisation, and, indeed, what else is caste or any definite class
distinctions but that? But the most obvious fact of the present time is
the disappearance of caste and the fluctuating uncertainty of all class
If one looks into the conditions of industrial employment specialisation
will be found to linger just in proportion as a trade has remained
unaffected by inventions and innovation. The building trade, for
example, is a fairly conservative one. A brick wall is made to-day much
as it was made two hundred years ago, and the bricklayer is in
consequence a highly skilled and inadaptable specialist. No one who has
not passed through a long and tedious training can lay bricks properly.
And it needs a specialist to plough a field with horses or to drive a
cab through the streets of London. Thatchers, old-fashioned cobblers,
and hand workers are all specialised to a degree no new modern calling
requires. With machinery skill disappears and unspecialised intelligence
comes in. Any generally intelligent man can learn in a day or two to
drive an electric tram, fix up an electric lighting installation, or
guide a building machine or a steam plough. He must be, of course, much
more generally intelligent than the average bricklayer, but he needs far
less specialised skill. To repair machinery requires, of course, a
special sort of knowledge, but not a special sort of training.
In no way is this disappearance of specialisation more marked than in
military and naval affairs. In the great days of Greece and Rome war was
a special calling, requiring a special type of man. In the Middle Ages
war had an elaborate technique, in which the footman played the part of
an unskilled labourer, and even within a period of a hundred years it
took a long period of training and discipline before the common
discursive man could be converted into the steady soldier. Even to-day
traditions work powerfully, through extravagance of uniform, and through
survivals of that mechanical discipline that was so important in the
days of hand-to-hand fighting, to keep the soldier something other than
a man. For all the lessons of the Boer war we are still inclined to
believe that the soldier has to be something severely parallel, carrying
a rifle he fires under orders, obedient to the pitch of absolute
abnegation of his private intelligence. We still think that our officers
have, like some very elaborate and noble sort of performing animal, to
be "trained." They learn to fight with certain specified "arms" and
weapons, instead of developing intelligence enough to use anything that
comes to hand.
But, indeed, when a really great European war does come and lets loose
motor-cars, bicycles, wireless telegraphy, aeroplanes, new projectiles
of every size and shape, and a multitude of ingenious persons upon the
preposterously vast hosts of conscription, the military caste will be
missing within three months of the beginning, and the inventive,
versatile, intelligent man will have come to his own.
And what is true of a military caste is equally true of a special
governing class such as our public schools maintain.
The misunderstanding that has given rise to this proposition that this
is an age of specialisation, and through that no end of mischief in
misdirected technical education and the like, is essentially a confusion
between specialisation and the division of labour. No doubt this is an
age when everything makes for wider and wider co-operations. Work that
was once done by one highly specialised man—the making of a watch, for
example—is now turned out wholesale by elaborate machinery, or effected
in great quantities by the contributed efforts of a number of people.
Each of these people may bring a highly developed intelligence to bear
for a time upon the special problem in hand, but that is quite a
different thing from specialising to do that thing.
This is typically shown in scientific research. The problem or the parts
of problems upon which the inquiry of an individual man is concentrated
are often much narrower than the problems that occupied Faraday or
Dalton, and yet the hard and fast lines that once divided physicist from
chemist, or botanist from pathologist have long since gone. Professor
Farmer, the botanist, investigates cancer, and the ordinary educated
man, familiar though he is with their general results, would find it
hard to say which were the chemists and which the physicists among
Professors Dewar and Ramsey Lord Rayleigh and Curie. The classification
of sciences that was such a solemn business to our grandfathers is now
merely a mental obstruction.
It is interesting to glance for a moment at the possible source of this
mischievous confusion between specialisation and the division of labour.
I have already glanced at the possibility of a diabolical world
manufacturing gramophone records for our bishops and statesmen and
suchlike leaders of thought, but if we dismiss that as a merely elegant
trope, I must confess I think it is the influence of Herbert Spencer.
His philosophy is pervaded by an insistence which is, I think, entirely
without justification, that the universe, and every sort of thing in it,
moves from the simple and homogeneous to the complex and heterogeneous.
An unwary man obsessed with that idea would be very likely to assume
without consideration that men were less specialised in a barbaric state
of society than they are to-day. I think I have given reasons for
believing that the reverse of this is nearer the truth.