Sunday, October 6, 2013

Joseph Wood Krutch: on specialists and amateurs, Pt 1

"Many specialists are very contemptuous of such activities as mine--but not all of them are.  Some steal time from their exacting pursuits to be amateurs at something else or even, like me, of things in general.  Thus they recapture some of the spirit of the old naturalists who, whether they were professionals like Linnaeus or hobbyists like Gilbert White, lived at at time when there seemed nothing absurd about taking all nature as one's province.  And there are even some, eminent in their specialty, who experience a certain nostalgia for the days when the burden of accumulated knowledge was less heavy.  "The road," said Cervantes, "is always better than the inn" and discovering is more fun than catching up with what has been discovered.

Your amateur is delightfully if perhaps almost sinfully free of responsibility and can spread himself as thin as he likes over the vast field of nature.  There are few places not covered with concrete or trod into dust where he does not find something to look at.  Best of all, perhaps, is the fact that he feels no pressing obligation to "add something to the sum of human knowledge."  He is quite satisfied when he adds something to his knowledge.  And if he keeps his field wide enough he will remain so ignorant that he may do exactly that at intervals very gratifyingly short."

-- Joseph Wood Krutch --
from Baja California and the Geography of Hope

Is Krutch saying that specialists aren't necessary or that they are wasting their time?  Who is more useful--the specialist or the amateur--to humanity?   It seems at first glance that the specialist is obviously the most important or useful for they "add something to the sum of human knowledge."  What does an amateur like Joseph Wood Krutch provide that is comparable? 

What is the difference between the specialist and the amateur?  Are both important?

I had a friend who was an amateur railroader.  He built everything he could from raw materials--wood, metal, paint.  He would buy the plans for railroad cars and equipment and buildings and painstaking cut and and sanded and painted.  He worked on a huge model train layout in his basement.  One day he decided to turn his hobby into gainful employment.  He solicited work from architects to build models for the jobs they were trying to get.  He opened up a small shop in which he constructed various small objects such as models for display.  He prospered and eventually had to hire someone to work in the shop.  Shortly after he began this enterprise, he stopped work on the layout in his basement.  I lost track of him years later, and now I wonder if he ever went back to it.  What happened to his hobby?

Is this something like what happens to someone who is fascinated by nature, wanders about fields, forests, ponds,  marshes or beaches, who eventually studies it in school, and becomes a specialist, but no longer wanders those fields and forests and wet places that fascinated him long ago?


  1. Fred,

    As a teacher, did reading a book to teach it diminish your enjoyment of it? Or was that simply a different way of enjoying it? Is it more enjoyable to just read as a hobby?

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  3. Teaching literature was a mixed blessing. It allowed me to read and discuss (which was and is a most important part, a very necessary part, of reading for me) literature, but, on the other hand, it also interfered with my own private reading.

    Actually reading is not a hobby but a very necessary part of life for me.

  4. "Actually reading is not a hobby but a very necessary part of life for me."