Customised education?

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.

Explore posts in the same categories: education, higher education, university

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