On specialization

ChristopherHalverson
10/26/2010

On specialization

I ended up reading a small portion of a tentative English translation of a Coptic document by Hibat Ibn al-‘Assal, the translator of the Bible from Coptic into Arabic, and I got to a place where Hibat was describing the books of the Bible he affirmed as canon.

The author translated most of the books correctly, but when it came to the Books of Wisdom, there was one book that the translator did not know how to translate: "’Quhalet."

This is, of course, a hair’s breadth away from the Hebrew title for the book we call Ecclesiastes.

Now, I would have assumed the author knew this and was simply leaving things in a purer form of translation -- transliteration, except that "’Quhalet” was accompanied by one little added mark, a question mark.

I genuinely believe the translator of this document did not know that Ecclesiastes is a Latin rendering of the Hebrew title Qoheleth.

And this was one of the reasons I didn’t stay in England to do the Ph.D. at Cambridge but instead came back to the United States to do a Master of Divinity at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.

I kind of like being a generalist, poking my nose in multiple steaming and smelly mounds of knowledge. I am not ready to become so specialized that I can’t see the forest because I’m caressing one specific portion of a specific leaf on one specific type of tree.

That said, before I kick Specialization to the curb, I do have to affirm that the skills fostered by a Ph.D. are formidable and transferable to other subjects.

Additionally, in digging down through the layers of time and interpretation to get to your specific subject you end up bumping into a lot of interesting things -- so in a sense you become a generalist by osmosis instead of by intent.

Have you ever found that you can't see the forest because of the trees?

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Originally posted Oct 5, 2010, at Luthermatrix. Republished with permission of the author. Editor’s note: In today’s blog graduate student Chris Halverson wrestles with specialization. He believes that Ph.D. candidates can get bogged down with details and miss the big picture. Find a link to Christopher Halverson’s blog Luthermatrix at Lutheran Blogs.

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