Posted tagged ‘specialisation’

The early morning specialist

January 1, 2013

For reasons I won’t bother you with, I recently looked at the degree courses on offer at a respected English university; I won’t name it, this isn’t about that university. Anyway, if you want to study there you have a choice of 319 undergraduate courses for which you could apply. Some are standard enough – you know, mathematics, economics, computer science, that kind of thing. Others are more recherché, like digital electronics, or landscape architecture. Others again are combinations of things, like history with Dutch, or French with Luxembourg studies.

As I was surveying these, I began to wonder what this list was telling us about university education, and how exactly we expect young people to approach their education, life and career plans as they leave school. Do we need them to have detailed, specialised and settled views of what they want to do in life and work?

According to a report in the Irish Times, the Irish universities are about to change this pattern. A working group set up by the university presidents is set to recommend a ‘wider availability of general entry courses’, thereby radically reducing the number of entry options and allowing students to specialise after the first year. Perhaps this should set the scene for the re-evaluation of higher education more generally. Is there a case for suggesting that a university should offer only, say, ten undergraduate access routes, and allow students to make up their minds about how to specialise from there after they have begun their studies? This would not be an argument against vocational or professional programmes, but rather an argument for a more mature process leading students to their preferred careers. At any rate it is time to look again at how students are asked to make their higher education choices. A menu of 319 options is not really sensible.

Are our universities too specialised?

January 20, 2011

Writing as a guest blogger in the higher education pages of the Washington Post newspaper, Anne D. Neal of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) complains that American students are not getting a sufficiently rounded education. In fact, she suggests that the US system of higher education has ‘a culture that is anti-intellectual and that often produces students who have neither the skills or knowledge they will need to succeed after graduation’. In particular, she feels that students graduate without having a sufficient knowledge of history, economics and literature.

It is probably worth saying that the ACTA is not without its critics in America, and indeed Anne Neal has been criticised as someone intervening in higher education without sufficient expert knowledge and with a political agenda. However, the points raised in her piece may merit some discussion. Students in our system of education are being pushed earlier and earlier into greater specialisation, often before they are mature enough to make such choices. Modularisation in universities has provided some opportunities to broaden knowledge, but its implementation in practice has often been difficult.

Is it time to look more closely at our education system and to ask whether a more rounded education, continued to a slightly later age, would benefit society? Later specialisation (which certainly cannot be avoided) may work better if it is grounded in a greater degree of general knowledge.

Customised education?

February 5, 2009

During my last two years at school (which dedicated readers of this blog will know were spent in Germany) I took what now seems to me to have been an amazing array of courses, including the usual core subjects but also including ones like philosophy, political science, constitutional law, international trade, physics, chemistry, biology, botany and theology. Looking back at my examination materials (some of which I still have – and I have to confess I didn’t take these yesterday), the standards in some of these were very high, not unlike what I would now expect from a first year university programme. Some of my German friends tell me that it’s all different now and that standards are much lower, but at any rate what I enjoyed was a significant educational experience.

When I then began to study law in Trinity College Dublin, I shared the course with those who had done the Leaving Certificate, and others who had done ‘A’ Levels. While the Leaving Certificate was also quite broad (though less so than the German Abitur), it amazed me to see how specialised ‘A’ Levels were, and how early therefore young people were required, in the UK, to make choices about the direction they wanted to pursue.

‘Customised’ education – where special choices can be made or perhaps have to be made – has become an increasingly normal feature of our times. The US Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported that doubts were now being expressed about the extent to which Law degree programmes are being offered with a customised slant (Law with Marketing, Law with Clinical Psychology, and so forth), and suggested that ‘going to Law School to get a law degree has become a little like going to an ice-cream parlor for a scoop of vanilla’ with ‘elaborate flavor-and-topping menus’ [Chronicle of Higher Education, January 9 2009].

The question this poses is whether we want our higher education (and education generally) to focus on the things we want to be specialists in, or whether it should provide a broader grounding. More generally, there are major questions to be answered about the degree to which education provides skills or disseminates knowledge, or how both objectives can be combined in a manner that is both intellectually honest and functionally effective. Such questions are being asked and debated by educational specialists, but not in the academy at large; they are themselves specialist topics for those interested in pedagogy, rather than issues for all those involved in teaching and learning.

I suspect that the strategy processes we are about to embark upon will leave all this untouched – but they shouldn’t, and maybe they won’t.

How specialised should we be?

July 9, 2008

362 years ago this month saw the birth of Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz. Leibniz was a mathematician, a philosopher, a lawyer, a scientist, an alchemist, a theologian, an inventor, an archivist, an historian and a political scientist – and maybe other things besides. He was German, but he wrote in Latin and French. He strayed across the different disciplines and activities with consummate ease.

But what would we make of Leibniz today? Would we admire his eclectic scholarship, or would we suspect him of dumbing everything down? Would we see him as the typical modularisation project, with all its benefits and risks?

Over recent years it has become much more acceptable in academic circles to pursue interdisciplinary studies and research, and we have come to understand that a good deal of progress for society is achieved not within disciplines, but between them. Whole new subject areas have developed out of this realisation, including biotechnology.

It is of course still true that scholars need to have a good grounding in the disciplines they wish to study. But we need to ensure that specialisation is achieved within a broader context, including an understanding of relevant knowledge from other areas; and not just adjacent areas, but from across the whole spectrum. For example, addressing questions of ethics is becoming increasingly important for leading scientists.

We could therefore do worse than looking again at some of the great polymaths of past ages, including Gottfried von Leibniz. After all, Leibniz has received the ultimate accolade: he has a biscuit named after him.


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