People who know a lot about a little (or, why we need subject experts)

In watching the crisis unfold in the Ukraine over the past months and especially the last few weeks, I have been struck by how much I don't know what's going on. I consider myself someone who follows the news, tries to stay informed, a global citizen, etc. However, I must admit, I don't really know much of the backstory here, and I don't think most people really do, and suddenly this is a huge international issue and humanitarian crisis and outside parties are expected to know what to do and act. And so, it reminds me why I am hugely thankful for people who spend their lives studying seemingly esoteric and random subjects, like, for example, the history of the relationship between Russia and its neighbors. Because maybe your parents balked when you told them you were going to focus on the history of the collapse of the USSR in your dissertation, or write an in-depth article about the election of Yanukovych, but now, the world really needs you.

What if you happened to be an Arabic- or Pashto-speaking expert specializing in radicalized Islamic groups on September 10, 2001? Is there a lot of money in being one? Probably not. But these people existed. Who knew that just days later, your expertise would be the front and center issue across the globe? For policymakers who are expected to react immediately, you don't really have the luxury in "brushing up" on such complex issues in the face of some crisis. You have to find those people who understand the intricacies involved, the complex relationships, the stakeholders, the cultures, the languages. And usually these are professors or journalists, locals or people who work on-the-ground in NGOs and other organizations. Generally speaking, pretty thankless jobs 99% of the time. Maybe you publish a few journal articles or a long piece in the paper (a couple pages in), or you're invited to speak at a gathering of like-minded people, or maybe you even publish a book that not a lot of people really read. This is really the pinnacle of what to expect- most of the time. In a lot more cases, it's difficult to find a job that will pay you to continue the work you went to school for or spent years developing, and so you find a job working on something else that might not even be related (the "art history major as barista" trope we are all so familiar with).

But sometimes, this work is really important. Sometimes, people who are familiar with every angle of a topic you have never thought twice about are exactly who we need on the scene. And as a society, it seems that our policy is to discourage such a narrow focus. You're seen as naive or not forward thinking if you choose to study a field that isn't seen as lucrative or widely benefitting society. But a society full of doctors and lawyers and bankers and engineers doesn't sound like a society worth living in. We need people to curate museums and play drums in the park and study 19th century French literature. We need to respect the maniacs who learn languages that hardly anyone on Earth speaks or spend years writing books about random political events. We need people who are experts in things, or we lose those things. And for us to be a whole and educated society, we need those things.