Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

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21st Century: The Era of Deep Generalists and How NEP-2020 Addresses the Challenge


The National Education Policy 2020 (NEP 2020) gives especial emphasis on liberal arts education (LAE) as a part of imparting holistic and multidisciplinary education to the 21st century learner. It says “This notion of a ‘knowledge of many arts’ or what in modern times is often called the ‘liberal arts’ (i.e., a liberal notion of the arts) must be brought back to Indian education, as it is exactly the kind of education that will be required for the 21st century” (NEP 2020, 11.1).

Liberal Arts Education (LAE)

The roots of liberal arts goes back to the Greeks who considered LAE to be the ultimate hallmark of  an educated person. During classical antiquity, LAE was considered essential for an individual active in civic life. At that time, liberal arts comprised of three subjects called collectively as the trivium: grammar, rhetoric and logic.

In mediaeval times, liberal arts was expanded to include four other subjects named the quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. Thus there were altogether 7 subjects-grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy-included in LAE in mediaeval era. The trivium enabled the learner to participate in public debate, serve in court and perform military service whereas the quadrivium prepared the student for a more serious study of philosophy and theology.

Modern LAE encompasses a much larger range of subjects to develop well-rounded citizens with general knowledge of a wide range of subjects and with expertise in a diversity of transferable skills. The composition of the liberal arts degree programs differ among US, European and Asian universities. However, the spectrum of LAE generally includes the following fields:

  • Humanities: art, literature, linguistics, philosophy, music, modern foreign languages, theatre and classical languages etc.
  • Social sciences: anthropology, economics, geography, history, law, politics, sociology and gender studies etc.
  • Natural sciences: astronomy, biology, chemistry, physics, botany, zoology, geology and earth sciences etc.
  • Formal sciences: mathematics, logic, and statistics etc.

Generalists versus specialists

In the post-industrial world (Industry 5.0) that is shaping up now, the 21st century workplace would be a collaborative space between creative humans and Artificial Intelligence (AI) automatons.  Algorithms may soon replace most routine, repetitive jobs. Humans will be required only in creative jobs requiring innovation and humanity. Deep-learning AI and deep-thinking generalists will rule the roost in the new millennium.

Liberal arts education and technical literacy would be a powerful combination in the coming decades to address real-world issues such as climate change, terrorism, unemployment and sustainable development etc. The world has for long been divided into specialists and generalists. Too much importance has been given to the specialists. The generalists have been pejoratively referred to as “jack of all trades, and master of none.” But the 21st century will be the era of profound changes. Children born today must prepare for society 5.0 and workplace 5.0 and must be educated to take up futuristic jobs that don’t even exist today.


This would be the era of continual learning, unlearning, and relearning. Learners must be taught “how to think” and not “what to think.”

In the world of tomorrow, not just science and technical literacy would be needed but also soft skills. These soft skills that must be nurtured in the 21st century education include:

  • Critical thinking
  • Creativity
  • Collaboration
  • Communication
  • Citizenship (education)
  • Character (education).

Deep generalists

The 21st century will be ruled not by specialists but by generalists. Not the usual generalists but ‘deep generalists.’ The choice so far was between depth and breadth. What we need now will be those with lot of breadth and some amount of depth. “Jack of all trades, and master of none” must be replaced by “Jack of all trades, and master of some.

Generalists were earlier referred to as “a mile wide and an inch deep.” Deep generalists in the 21st century will be “a mile wide and several feet deep.” They are represented as T-shaped professionals, with T-shaped skill sets. The top horizontal line of the T represent the breadth of knowledge in several fields and the vertical line represent depth in one or a few subjects.

Deep generalist is a term coined by Warren Bennis and popularized by Aytekin Tank, founder of the company, JotForm.

Transdisciplinary education

Most traditional colleges and universities organize learning in water-tight compartments of departments such as physics, chemistry, biology, fine arts, and philosophy etc. However, most creative innovations will take place at the boundaries where disciplines meet. Multidisciplinary, cross-disciplinary, and trans-disciplinary would per force be the hallmark of the 21st century education. Many visionary scholars now talk about integrating STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) with SHAPE (social sciences, humanities, and the arts for people and the economy). Some even talk of a basic college education in STEAM-science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics!

Integrating art and science

Long ago, the physicist and novelist C P Snow talked about the need to bridge ‘the two cultures’ of art and science. However, quite a few scientists and artists have been able to bridge the divide. These exceptional individuals are called polymaths or polymathic scientists/artists. Leonardo da Vinci is a prime example. He was a brilliant artist as well as a scientist. He said “To develop a complete mind: Study the science of art; Study the art of science. Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.

Many successful people are generalists or polymaths. Elon Musk is one of them. He is engineer, physicist, programmer and businessman. Specialists may get placement soon but they may soon become unemployed in the 21st century or Industry 5.0 scenario. Deep generalists, on the other hand, may be perpetually prepared to land a variety of jobs in the 21st century workplace; to fix their minds and hands on anything that become important in future.

Benjamin Franklin, Herbert Simon, Carl Djerassi, Warren Buffett, Larry Page, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Jeff Bezos are some other famous polymaths.

To become a polymath, one may do any or some of these things:

  • Learn a new language
  • Become artistic (learn piano)
  • Learn psychology and philosophy
  • Be curious
  • Learn science and physics
  • Read high-quality literature (not just superficial materials)
  • Engage with community; involve in social work
  • Add breadth to your depth.


Then, you will really shine;  and become a deep generalist. You may learn a new language, or elements of computer programming/coding, introductory data science, and rudiments of poetry.

According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), most jobs in 2022 will necessitate:

  • Analytical thinking & innovation
  • Active learning and new learning strategies
  • Creative thinking
  • Critical thinking
  • Technical design .

Outliers versus Pareto principle

Malcolm Gladwell said that outliers-people who excel in a particular field-need about 10,000 hours of uninterrupted practice in that subject. However, the Pareto principle asserts that 80% expertise in a particular area may be attained in just 20% of the time needed to master that field. For example, a good mastery of a foreign language may be gained by learning just 300 core words.

A deep generalist (a polymath) is capable of:

  • Making knowledge connections
  • Performing synthesis, not just analysis
  • Placing products, services & benefits in the client’s context
  • Executing rather than pronouncing norms
  • Conveying higher-quality communications.

According to David Epstein who wrote “Range (2019)”, generalists would rule the specialized world of 21st century as they would be adapted to the traits of creative problem solving, innovation, systems thinking and emotional agility required in a dynamically changing world.

Are our higher education institutes (HEIs) prepared to equip students with 21C skills e.g. problem-solving, creativity, collaboration, critical thinking. communication etc?

As David Epstein says in a YouTube lecture, quoting the polymath scientist, Freeman Dyson says that both focused frogs (specialists) and visionary birds (deep generalists) must work together on complex problems. The problem, he said, is that we’re frequently telling everyone to become frogs, and that limits our vision and our ability to adapt quickly in a changing world. We need both, one solving problems one at a time, and the other integrating different problems in innovative ways.

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin talked about the hedgehog and the fox. The hedgehog knows one big thing and the fox knows many things. The world needs both the hedgehog and the fox. But the 21st century would be increasingly ruled by the fox (the bird/deep generalist).

It’s high time our educational institutions re-invent themselves to nurture deep generalists!

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