This comes from a comment left recently and it ties in with NB’s review of post secondary education that’s going on right now.
I’m hearing more and more about whether or not the target of education should be generalists or specialists. This is going to be one of those cases in which I think both sides of the argument are stunned and the only way to snap them out of it will be judicious use of a 2x4. I’ll proceed by trying to sum up the positive arguments on both sides and then try and explain the way I think it should be done.
The basic premise of this argument is we can’t predict what skills or knowledge a person is going to need later in life so everybody is better off, if education gives everybody a little flavour of everything. If you have a little bit of exposure to all kinds of different topics you can apply the knowledge and skills that you do have to a very wide variety of problems. Essentially you won’t be tied into just one way of thinking or looking at the world. The positive side of this argument has some merit.
Here are the catches (plural).
1) You almost always end up giving generalists just enough knowledge to be dangerous. We’ve seen this with people on the left running around screaming about how markets are everywhere and always evil. We’ve seen this with people on the right running around trying to privatize everything because the market is perfect. They’ve both received just enough knowledge to do a lot of damage to society. They think they understand but really don’t have a clue. What’s worse, they tend not to listen to “experts” because they have been indoctrinated to believe a general education is always better than a specialized one.
2) The information that tends to be disseminated in a lower level university course is about 40 to 60 years out of date, depending on the discipline. The basic understanding is far from complete and important parts are likely missing. This is unlikely to change in any but the purely linguist driven disciplines. Our high school system simply isn’t delivering enough or appropriate math. There may be hope for the future in other provinces, but not in NB yet.
3) At lower or generalist levels, what is taught can be very instructor specific – so you don’t get a sense of the breadth of the discipline.
The basic idea here is that we need as many people as possible working at the cutting edge of their discipline. This is the message of Adam Smith taken to the extreme. There is so much to know in virtually every discipline it is impossible for each person to know more than one discipline. Developments are made at the boundary of disciplines. We are thus better off if we specialize as much and as soon as possible. The argument can be summed as; we need as many experts as we can get. There’s truth here too.
There are catches with this as well.
1) Specialization can go too far. This is starting to happen in fields like physics and chemistry. Definitely has already happened in biology. You get people how know all there is to know about algae, but no clue about the basic physical or chemical processes involved in the life processes they’re trying to describe. We won’t even mention dealing with people.
2) Expertise is in and of itself without context. We always need a way to explain why we should care.
3) A mediocre economist might make a good sociologist. If we specialize too early it is more likely that the match between innate skills and profession will be less than ideal.
What’s the solution? A combination of the two, of course! Everyone should start off as a generalist and learn the strengths and weaknesses of different ways of thinking. There should be a single common first year or first 2 years of university. No BBA’s, no BA’s, no BSc’s. Everybody should have to take some English (lit) and some math. Some natural science and some social science should also be required. Everybody should have to take a little conversational second language training. The first year or two would be what provides the breadth and context for specialization. The key here is that every student should walk away with an understanding of what a field of study does and does not do well. This means prof’s will have to get their shit together. You can choose to end you’re education here with a “Generalist’s” degree. And a final point, marking would only be pass/fail here.
Specialization will only be allowed to occur after you’ve done the generalist’s degree. At this point you don’t have to take any electives. You can take only courses in your chosen field of study if you want. Once we’re sure you’ve got the foundation and context we can begin to have you become a specialist.
Why isn’t university already organized this way? It seems that context and breadth is the role of the elective? There are 2 answers. First, the kind of basic education that I’m talking about is supposed to have occurred in high school. Seeing as how it no longer does, it falls to the university. Second, we can blame Sputnik. With the launch of Sputnik all the NATO powers went a little crazy. We decided that the only way we were going to survive the situation was to out invent and out science the soviets. The entire focus of the education system changed. Get them into science and engineering as quickly as possible. Thus began the shift in education to hyper-specialization. We're now seeing the pendulm start to swing too far in the other direction.