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Learn, Play, Work, Play

This blog should be read with its companion: Being Serious

One of the fun things about being part of the ‘knowledge revolution’  is that we get to reclaim words; we get to look afresh at stuff which went out of fashion or, perhaps more than ever in history, we get to make up neologisms and attach them to all sorts of new and composite ideas.

I’ve enjoyed making a pitch to reclaim generalism, giving the word new clothes, a new power and a new rationale. Generalism makes a lot of sense when structures are breaking down and we need to keep alive to all sorts of new possibilities and opportunities throughout our lives. It will be the generalist who is able to plug in to new ventures, retool themselves when required, offer fresh and multi-dimensional perspectives in a ‘fractured yet connected’ world. The term ‘generalism’ has been derided for some time (I was warned to avoid it when first setting up the BASc degree) and it feels good to champion this underdog, reinstating it to where it was in a pre-Comtian world of ‘specialisation’, wheeling it out as the grandfather of that newer and more buzzy thing: interdisciplinarity.

Emboldened by this project, and by the fact that some of our superb students on Arts and Sciences at UCL have no problem at all calling themselves ‘generalists’, I’d like to refurbish and reannounce a word which has lost all lustre, its original meaning more submerged even than that of generalism. A word which has become synonymous with superficiality and uselessness: dilettantism.

What? You want people to be dilettantes? Well, maybe. It depends on what that word really means. Read on.

On my phone, the app I use to buy all the other apps through google is called ‘google play’. Through ‘play’ I buy books on interdisciplinarity, grammar and maths. Through ‘play’ I organise my train journeys and plane journeys and search for recipes for empty fridges. Oliver Quinlan reminded the Arts and Sciences students when he spoke to us in November that google executives admonish us to play. Being playful is often synonymous with being creative, and creativity is much in demand. Everywhere we’re urged to play and be more playful.

Amateurs ‘play’. They play because they love to do what they’re doing. For a long time now we’ve lived in thrall of the notion of ‘professionalism’, deriding ‘amateurism’ for…for what? I’m not quite sure. For doing something out of love rather than because you get paid for it?

There is some confusion around the ambiguity of two notions of ‘professional’ in popular use. The two meanings of professional are: 1. Someone who gets paid for what they do; 2. Being of a ‘profession’. If being a professional is about being paid for doing something then there is no good reason why we should prefer the professional over the amateur. Indeed the reverse might be the case. However, for many areas of work, the idea of ‘being of a member of a profession’ has become important. Classically there were three professions: medicine, divinity and law and to be a member of these professions expressed a vocation. I’m fine with that. It is very important that certain professions exist to maintain a level of homogeneity, standards and practice. However, I think it is strange how far the notion of professionalism has extended – as if ‘being professional’ is the only way to be respectable.  For example, I found it odd when I was an opera singer and colleagues referred to another singer as ‘a good pro’. I know what they meant, I did it myself: the guy turned up on time, was a reliable voice, cared about what he did; but surely artists are the last people who should be ‘professional’. If an artist is a professional, who is not?

But this creep of ‘professionalism’ also smells of bureaucracy, of a world ruled by rigid structures, modern, late capitalist versions of medieval guilds. It is too fixed for the new fluid networks and relationships that are coming to dominate our lives in unexpected ways. It also plays into ideas of monetized work and a monetary system which is deeply problematic and quite possibly on its last legs (although no-one can reliably predict what the next system will look like).

‘Professionalism’, then, looks very 1980s in many contexts, ossifying in the system along with rigid work structures, one career per lifetime, little workplace autonomy and a discredited idea of money and remuneration.

Why do people fear and deride amateurism? After all, the amateur has been widely valued throughout history and across different cultures (see e.g Peter Burke’s Social History of Knowledge). I think this is a social issue. The fears are bureaucratic rather than based on well-founded doubt about a person’s level of knowledge or competence. If someone wears the badge of a professional they are easily categorised, labelled and mentally stored – stress free. An amateur is harder to place, needs more negotiating, takes a little more work – and who has time for that? This made sense in a world where it was hard to check up on people, where we had to place our trust in ancient and august institutions. But again, the rigid ideas of professional classes and competences are losing importance in our networked and flatter world. A quick look at someone’s reputation capital can tell you pretty well whether you can trust them to walk your dog, paint your fence or even fix your back or invest your money. Who needs tons of bureaucratic accreditation when real life and your network can vouch for those you interact with?

And so to dilettantism. The word derives from the Italian ‘dilettare’ – to delight. Like amateurism, this quality was admired in intellectuals of the late renaissance and enlightenment. One could argue that ‘delighting’ in something often emerges from the best sort of play. Children delight in what they’re doing when they are having a good time. But ‘delighting’ also has, I think, more sophisticated, theoretical overtones – something I think we should approve of in education, and also in our employment. We should delight in ideas, delight in connections, delight in interesting work, a good solution, an impressive colleague or dedicated scholarship.

If we delight in something it means we will gladly return to it. Whatever we delight in refreshes us and enlivens us – it makes us laugh. Happy is the person who is able to delight in their work, whether that is in a university library, a multinational corporation or on a factory floor! Delight breeds delight, gives us energy and encourages us to look for positive solutions. Who can say, then, the the connected dilettantes of tomorrow will not find that the wheel of history turns in their favour again?

Photo under CC license from Evin Erin’s photo stream

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