Education: Jack vs. The Renaissance man

In Plato’s Republic Socrates’ character states that people are better off restricting themselves to one craft than practicing many(Republic 370b). He makes several comments of this nature, going so far as to insist that a person should, “stick to [his trade] for life, and keep away from other crafts so as not to miss the opportunities to practise his own craft well”(Republic 374c). Interestingly enough, there is a slightly-more-modern- than-Plato figure of speech which basically sums up the idea that a person with many skills is not necessarily outstanding at any one skill: “Jack of all trades, master of none”. Although the question of many trades versus one was not brought up as part of the education of the guardians(it was only made relevant to the formation of the city), I think it is important to our classroom discussion on education. Should education be broad or focused?

In our society, people aim to be “well rounded”, a phrase we now associate with being accomplished, competitive, and knowledgeable. I have heard this phrase many times concerning my own education and future and sometimes I do wonder if I would have been better off pursuing one thing and mastering it. However, I only dwell briefly. Ultimately, I am of the consensus that people should pursue all kinds of knowledge and aim to develop all of their abilities. I believe education should be broad and I fully endorse the idea of the “Renaissance man”. The Renaissance man embodies the belief that people are limitless in their capacity for development and I don’t see how incorporating that belief, even if it just an ideal, into our philosophy on education could be a bad thing. Orienting education towards this ideal and encouraging people to pursue many things helps develop braver, better thinkers.

On the other hand, I believe the conflicting arguments of Plato’s society and our society arise not because one argument is right and the other wrong but because our “cities” are very different. Just as in the discourse where the “city of pigs” was so different from the “feverish city” solely based on the wants, needs, and ideals of the citizens who lived in it, our society values and pursues different things than Plato’s society(372a-e). On that note, individuals are probably more varied than societies and there are probably many different circumstances where either argument is more valid than the other. The figure of speech “Jack of all trades, master of none” actually started as just “Jack of all trades” which was taken as a compliment. It was later modified to hold a negative connotation, then modified again to become slightly less negative: “Jack of all trades, master of none, certainly better than a master of one”. The constant flux in the meaning and use of this phrase is evidence enough that time and circumstance has a lot to do with the answer to the question of  “broad or focused”.

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