Sunday, May 13, 2007

General Specialist

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2) The information that tends to be disseminated in a lower level university course is about 40 to 60 years out of date, depending on the discipline.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.


Anonymous said...

we already have what you described at UTM for the Commerce degree. Core courses for the first year necessary for admission into Commerce and then you specialize. During the first year and some second year stuff you must have some writing component, science component and so on.

In addition, I was also talking about economies in general. Should an enconomy for instance emphasize basic scientific research or in applied science. The Chinese are doing an excellent job of the later and quite frankly "stealing" from the first. In this case, you can have your cake and eat it too....and why not?!

Based on comparative advantage an economy should specialize not generalize. We genealize in some stuff because of political reasons none of which makes economic sense. NO.1 target: Agriculture...boondoggle...but for political reasons we subsidize the living hell out of it. Farmers are the richest bunch around.

Look at the US: ETHANOL - CORN...what a joke and $$$ just for votes...

Any thoughts?

economistatlarge said...

True, most programs have a somewhat general first year. Unfortunately, they tend to keep it mostly in house and don't do quite enough. In my world you'd have to take real math, not business math. You'd have to take real english, not business communications. I don't know about UTM, but that's usually the way its done.

The Chinese solution only works for catch up. And then only until everybody else catches on and cuts you off. We're starting to see that happen with the disclosure of the Chinese "information" network in Canada.

Be careful with specialization. You can go too far. Remember Opportunity cost typically increases as you produce more of something. One of the reasons we don't often see complete specialization.

Agriculture is getting interesting. There are some big environmental considerations with monoculture - but we're starting to get a handle on them. The "family farm" has been a myth for years. When I lived in Sk anything that you or I would think of as a family farm is really a hobby farm - some nut from the city playing farmer on the weekends.

As for buying votes, its a long standing American tradition. Are you saying you're against American traditions? :)

Anonymous said...

i agree with the specialization but how does diminishing returns affect it when we also learn about how with knowledge and education that perhaps decreasing returns does not apply. i'm playing devil's advocate here (something along New Growth Theory)...

there was a good piece in MIT Tehnology Review a while back that perhaps Growth is not the "real" way to get increasing standards of living. Growth is only one parameter but there was no talk about weights, that is, growth plays a huge part in steady continous increasing standard of living.

with the courses thing, it just depends how rigorous and how much is covered that counts. I took Prof. Stoica's two advanced business math courses (the second one was not a requirement) and don't let the title trick you. They were tough and covered everything in business using calculus only. That really helped me in the micro/macro courses later on. Albeit it sure does make comparisons difficult when using only the course title.

I have two minors here(i can only pick one because i am in the accounting specialist program - the dif. btwn specialist and a major is an extra 2.0 credits for the former), one is political science (i have chosen this one) and the other is geography (not your typical geography stuff).

In geography my courses have ranged from globalization history and on, energy, farming, transportation, cities/rural and so on.

And i have to tell you, monoculture is a disaster and if it is working (and they are at a BIG cost)it is because of companies like Monsanto and heavy heavy fertilzer/chemical use. Give it time, we're in for a big surprise. I am no environmental freak but I am involved but pragmatically and realistically. Remember the discussions about fascism - well god knows there are environmental ones too. KYOTO is a joke, they talk taxing companies which will then tax us...there advertising (govt and interest groups) that it will good for the people, that is, no additional cost...well it can't include me and because the golden rule (no pun intended)in economics is that there is no such thing as a free lunch....there are's a matter of who pays THE MOST in the end and in this situation it will be me and you.

The history behind this environmental thing is interesting I will talk about it later but suffice it to say, and we both know this, that never take anything for granted or at face value and always do your own research and get the facts. Everyone with this topic is coming from a certain point of view and skewing the facts...extremely deceptive but effective with a population that really most of the time is dumb as dirt.

Your stuff:
As for buying votes, its a long standing American tradition. Are you saying you're against American traditions? :)

Hell no, but as we "mature" and see things through other lenses don't you think that it's just a big fraud and overall it hurts the American economy. When a gov't picks and chooses (and in the US it's often a failure)everyone suffers except for the few. (eg: the select farmers - who are not independent but belong to a corporation and Haliburton and so on).

Traditions must change and if they don't, even a large "advanced" country like the US can and will fade away like the dodo bird.

I guess what I am saying is that the concept of self-interest has gone too far and the great debate in the near future (it's just getting a whisper today) is going to be about individual rights (self-concept) and communal rights. There needs to be a better balance. This is coming from a person(as you know) is huge on individualism. But it has gone too far so much so that it has become self-damaging.

Any thoughts?

Anonymous said...

The Chinese solution only works for catch up. And then only until everybody else catches on and cuts you off. We're starting to see that happen with the disclosure of the Chinese "information" network in Canada.


Just call it for what it is will ya :) damn spies....:)

Watch your back Dr.J!!!

I'm just LMAO...

Anonymous said...

bank of canada governor recently spoke about the idea of a single currency for the americas is possible but first a more freer/open labour mobility is necessary. some have called the currency the amero which sounds like some bad latin american dance but it may find some resistance because others have said that canada and mexico might have to adopt the US$ as their currency and give up central bank/monetary authority.

i'm not so convinced about the labour mobility thing coming first though. he's just protecting his job. let's face it, a lot of skill sets are easily transferable and upgradeable-it's red tape. now if the governor is talking about that then i will agree with him to a point.

here's my take: i think that a major friction between areas are transaction costs and red-tape - anything to reduce those will lubricate things and reduce friction.
if we can learn anything from europe, discussions and agreements about a single currency area covered both issues, labour mobility and currency.

my little plan:

1) the US$ does not have to be the single currency, if we make it like a basket - the US$ can be a significant weight of the basket.

2) one monetary authority that sets common policy but each country can have its own central banks which can have a limited scope of options to play with that are tailored to local conditions.

3)once conditions warrant, discussions about a single currency can take place (that is no more basket)and further powers to a central monetary authority.

europe is now coming to being, but it took almost 10 years to achieve some level of stability. we can do better in hindsight and should be proactive in this.

i just read a book by mark levinson called "THE BOX...." about containers and shipping and how the standardization of containers revolutionized shipping, trade, and globalization. fascinating book and read it too!

it's amazing that truly the only thing that every country involved in maritime trade has agreed to is the standardization on containers for shipping - the 40 foot container. something simple as that is so revolutionary. now, if we can only extend that type of cooperation.