Specialization vs. Generalization in Education

Everywhere we turn today we see specialization. The most respected and well paid doctors and dentists are often those who perform just a few procedures. Many attorneys cover just one area of law. Even kids are specializing in how they play! With the spread of “travel teams” whose seasons are often more than six months per year, young athletes, starting at the age of 8 or so, are now forced to choose one or two sports at the expense of all others.

Specialization produces excellence—but only within a narrow range of endeavor. We have become a society where even the narrowest of activities is treated as a sport with its own heroes. Repetition and mastery of a very specific activity is now the model of stardom. But even Adam Smith, the famous economist who advocated the division of labor in society, admitted that the system had a major drawback:

The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. (Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, 1776, Book 5, Part III, Chapter II)

Smith never solved this riddle: How to get all the material advantages of specialization while avoiding its intellectual pitfalls? But it’s clear that he saw educational reform as the best option—his critique of the division of labor is located in a discussion of educational reform.

Today even college education, which used to aim to produce versatile professionals, is specialized. This has been the case for a long time; it has been a major social trend since the end of World War II. The expansion of the American university system, and more precisely, the growth of graduate certification, is a major factor here.

Consider a B.A. student who shows promise in historical studies. The student can choose not to specialize at the B.A. level but will probably opt to write a B.A. thesis on a pretty focused subject, simply because a thesis is expected of those who apply to graduate school.

When the student moves on to the M.A. level, the student will now be required to declare a specialty, such as modern Britain. Finally, for the Ph.D. the student must produce a very long dissertation on a specific topic within the specialty: charity groups in early Victorian England. At this stage, generalizing and synthesizing count for little. Showing complete mastery of the particular topic is everything.

Ironically, as the student advances through the degree system, he or she learns more and more about less and less.

The same is often true in the technical fields. Many students now specialize in computer science and acquire no basic knowledge of engineering or other fields. That might be okay if the field of computer science did not in turn break down into specialties, such as cyber security, information retrieval, and so forth.

What are the costs of this specialization? One cost is that the areas of learning that we call “disciplines” are now exciting only to those inside of them; often, they even fail to inspire insiders for their whole career. The massive expansion of universities in recent decades has made it possible to produce hundreds of experts on Victorian England. They can now hold their own conferences and sustain their own journals. But who benefits and who cares? Even the specialists are suffering from doubts about who their audience is and what their role in society as a whole is. A tone of self-abnegation and cynicism is palpable among many academics today.

Another cost is that students rarely encounter university teachers who think across disciplines or pose vital problems that cut through multiple fields. As a result, the students are often bored and stifled. They feel they are being tested on their disciplinary knowledge and not on their capacity to assemble the building blocks of knowledge in a creative way.

The biggest cost is the risk that we will not have individuals capable of rising to the pressing needs of our time. In “Interdisciplinary Problem-Based Learning: An Alternative to Traditional Majors and Minors,” Robert J. Sternberg of Tufts University identifies four such needs:

(1) finding a way to manage—or ideally eradicate— epidemics (e.g., AIDS, SARS, perhaps avian flu); (2) achieving ways to manage or eliminate terrorism and terrorist attacks; (3) finding ways to combat global warming and related changes in the atmosphere before it is too late to keep the earth habitable to humans; and (4) developing positive, effective, ethical leaders who have at heart the best interests of all their stakeholders, rather than primarily their own interests or those of groups to which they feel they owe allegiance as a result of family, tribal, political party, economic, or religious ties.

Sternberg adds: “These four major problems, in common with virtually all problems facing the world, can be solved only through multidisciplinary thinking. They very well could form the bases for problem-based majors and minors in university settings.” (Published in Liberal Education, Winter, 2008, vol. 94, no. 1)

Sternberg describes a new initiative at Tufts to encourage students to combine diverse disciplines into specially crafted majors. However, right here at UMass Amherst, we have had the kind of program he describes since the 1970s. The Bachelor’s Degree With An Individual Concentration (BDIC) is a program in which students invent their own cross-interdisciplinary majors.

The student must draw on at least three disciplines and must envision ways of applying the special major in his or her future career. Examples of such majors are: “Economics and Legal Studies,” “Marketing, Communication, and Graphic Design,” “Organizational Development,” “International Peace Studies,” “Computer Applications in Finance and Economics,” “Film and Women’s Studies,” “Community Health Education,” and “Arts Administration.”

The students are energized by the fact that they construct a unique and interdisciplinary curriculum. One student wrote in her senior summary: “I can say that I truly enjoyed what I studied in college. After all, I’m the one who created it.” Instead of being tested on their mastery of a pre-existing discipline, the students get credit for being inventive. Many BDIC alumni have gone on to become versatile and thoughtful leaders in fields related to their specially designed majors.

Fortunately, there is a growing trend among colleges and universities to offer programs like BDIC. The University of Connecticut was one of the first to follow the lead of UMass by establishing an Individualized Major Program in 1974. More such programs have been founded in recent years in response to the widespread disenchantment with conventional academic structures.

These programs are not perfect. But they provide a partial alternative to the problem of specialization in modern society. Today everyone has a responsibility to ask themselves whether they are reaching as high and wide as they could in their education and careers. Educators in particular need to challenge themselves. We need more academic degrees that produce a versatile problem-solving competence, and fewer degrees that merely attest to specialized expertise.

Or maybe we need fewer academic degrees, period. A greater willingness among university administrators to hire persons who have been successful in real life activities, whether or not they have doctoral degrees would certainly invigorate the academy. Our future may well depend on having more people who are less educated involved in the instruction of our youth.

–Daniel Gordon is professor of history and Interim Director of BDIC at UMass Amherst.

Author: Dan Gordon

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1 Comment

  1. Well written. This is very true.

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