This aphorism by the ancient Greek poet Archilochus got quite a bit of currency during the last century. A lot of people asked whether, in the world of ideas, it was better to be a fox than a hedgehog.
As you know if you followed the polls, the 20th-century consensus wound up firmly in favor of the hedgehog. After all, the time had passed when one could be universally educated in all subjects and disciplines. There was too much stuff to learn about too many big things. Generalists didn’t stand a chance. The time of the specialist had arrived. And specialists are, by definition, hedgehogs—small, spiny, nocturnal, insectivorous, and extremely well-versed in one big thing.
Through the last phase of the 20th century and the first decade of this one, Pat and I defied this preference and steadfastly remained foxes—omnivorous, narrow-snouted, bushy-tailed, red-coated, and determined to learn as much stuff about as many big things as we could.
It’s been a risky and unpopular stance. Publishers, literary agents, and temp agencies have implored us to turn hedgehog. It’s been devilishly hard to make a living as writers, even though the keyboard long ago replaced the quill as a writing instrument. Worst of all, we’ve had to forego the hedgehog’s defensive maneuver of rolling up into a ball and pointing its spines outwards. Foxes are fatally furry and vulnerable to attack by parties of gung-ho specialists with their bugles, horses, and dogs.
But foxness wasn’t altogether a matter of choice for us. Call it ADHD if you like, but we are just not congenitally hedgehoggian. During our 20+ years writing together, we have published work about … let’s see …
… the Cardiff Giant, the American Revolution, radio and TV broadcasting, the Burr/Hamilton Duel, the Piltdown Skull, fractals, the Underground Railroad, the Declaration of Independence, the Shakers, g-forces, the American Civil War, Osama Bin Laden, addiction, mythology, nanotechnology, World War II, the Civil Rights Movement, Deep Blue, the U.S. Constitution, lucid dreaming, Quakers, Spanish explorers, the U.S. Bill of Rights, the murder of Christopher Marlowe …
… just to mention a few topics.
We are not, of course, foxes of the old school (“paleofoxes”)—those fabulous panautodidacts ranging from Leonardo da Vinci to Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Such metaphorical “true foxes” (figurative genus Vulpes of the allegorical Canidae family) were in-depth masters of all areas of knowledge. They became extinct in the middle of the last century, wiped out by sheer information overload.
But a few mutant foxes (“neofoxes”) have survived to enter the age of hyperinformation. We are masters of nothing and browsers of everything.
“But to what end?” you may ask.
Indeed, just what is a mutant fox good for?