The virtue of adaptability

You’re probably familiar with the distinction between foxes and hedgehogs — “the fox knows many tricks; the hedgehog knows only one, but it’s a good one.” Foxes are generalists, but hedgehogs are specialists.

I always sort of envisioned myself as a potential hedgehog. In many ways, the British system seems set up to produce hedgehogs — you apply to university in a specific subject, and students seem specialised relatively early in the secondary system compared to their counterparts in the US (the only other system I really know about, although I’ve seen a little of some others). And, of course, graduate education is specialised for everyone — as you continue, you know, as they say, more and more about less and less.  And I went through that system like everyone else; by the end, I knew a huge amount about a very specific topic.

But outside academia, I was pulled in the opposite direction. I work as a teacher and tutor, so I spend a lot of time being called on to talk about subjects I’m sometimes only passingly familiar with. Here’s the stuff I’ll be dealing with this week, purely on the history side (I also tutor kids in English):

  • The legislation of the Long Parliament.
  • Cleopatra VII and her impact on Roman politics.
  • Anti-war messages in the popular culture of the late 1960s.
  • The Arab-Israeli conflict (twice).
  • Daily life in the early and high middle ages.
  • The first Gulf War (maybe, time permitting).
  • The Amritsar massacre.

I’ve also been working on the podcast I co-host, and it’s been a similar experience. So far we’ve talked about:

  • Richard the Lionheart and the Crusades.
  • The middle ages in general.
  • Science and superstition in Renaissance Italy.
  • Magna Carta.
  • Experimental archaeology.
  • Arthurian legend.
  • The invasions of 1066.
  • The Jacobite rising of 1745.
  • Occultism, folk dance and pop archaeology of the 1970s.

I never know what I’m going to get asked — we don’t really script our show ahead of time — so I try to be prepared!

Now, on the one hand this is a lot of work. But on the other hand it’s definitely working out my “ginning up a subject quickly” muscles, which is a very useful thing. It also allows me to mentally justify buying books on pretty much whatever since they could one day be useful.


The virtue of adaptability

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