Does society need individuals with equivalent skills in theory and implementation?
I believe so, yes!
Slowly, slowly, making progress.
In the old days most little towns had a blacksmith, sort of like most little towns today have a “Gas-n-Go.” Where are they all going? Out of town to get the things they need. But personal transportation wasn’t well developed in the old days, so the things one needed had to be brought closer to hand. I am not wistful for the small-town of old, except that I have always been attracted to the old-time blacksmith as an archetype. (“Competencies: Physical strength, conceptualization,” says Wikipedia.)
Have you ever felt energized visiting a museum replica of a blacksmith’s or carpenter’s shop? I have; I even tried cabinetwork years ago… it didn’t stimulate my mind enough, so it rebelled. Eventually I drifted into electrical engineering and graduate school. At my first (and only) job after graduate school I would grow frustrated waiting for all the “high priority” (= “supporting current production”) jobs to get built on schedule while my “R&D” (= “future of the company”) jobs languished or were piecemealed. Fortunately, the two machinists that worked in the shop, Scooter and Scott, were sympathetic and let me use equipment that would otherwise have sat idle. They treated me as their apprentice, and I tried to give them back as good as they gave, for example helping go between them and some of the less than sympathetic engineers who didn’t understand the reality of tolerance.
This experience really empowered practical creativity, because I could make a little widget to try out a theoretical idea. This made improving even the larger systems faster because I could give my boss concrete evidence that my ideas might work. Some did and some didn’t, but many new ideas and improvements to old ones flowed freely from my mind to my hands and on to production.
Then I got promoted.
Actually, it was more complicated than that. The dot-com bubble popped in 2001 and my employer was forced to reduced staff commensurately. The facility where I worked was closed and the property was sold off. I was offered the choice of a transfer and a big raise or to hit the bricks.
I chose the raise.
But the cost was that I had to forego turning cranks in the shop. The new place’s shop was bigger and faster-paced. The superintendent didn’t like the idea of a “guest machinist.” Gradually, I found my professional responsibilities shifting more to conference calls and giving advice, with less time spent tinkering.
That’s over now. I am starting to right myself. Today I have three customers– I am developing a special antenna of one. I am available to discuss resonant lines on a will-call basis for another. The third customer pays me a fixed retainer and asks me to help out however and wherever I am able. I really love working for the third customer, but I actually get to make things for all of them. It is up to me to decide how best to serve their individual needs.
Is it even a good idea to be equally devoted to theoretical understanding and practical know-how? Or is the cautionary phrase, “Jack of all trades, master of none” more sensible? For me, it was never really a choice so much as a compulsion to hang out in the shared space between the two. Slowly, slowly, I am finding people whose projects need equal parts theory and practice. Designer and builder. Making headway.