Head 2 Head: Specialization in higher education

Specialization breeds innovation (by Tim Seery)

If you page through a college course book you will undoubtedly find courses that are much narrower in focus than anything you would see in a high school curriculum.

 Classes under the history department titled, “The American West” in the English department called, “The Romantics” or in the math department that focus on “Logic.” However, there are colleges and universities that take this level of specification to a whole new level.

It is not uncommon to come across courses that can become as detailed as “Liberation Ecology: Politics and Policy in the Creation of a Just, Green Economy” or “Topics in Latin American Cultural Studies: Contemporary Cuban Literature and Visual Culture.”

Both of these are offered at Princeton University, known for its fondness of specific courses.

Specialization in higher education serves a distinct purpose. Secondary school education is known for having a wide breadth with very shallow depth.

This system offers a students the opportunity to take a wide range of courses so that they leave high school with a solid foundation in all academic subject areas. College provides the depth that high school lacks.

Specialization in higher education has a clear purpose: It completes a student’s overall education.  High school lets students explore a wide variety of academic subject areas with the hope that each student gain some sense of purpose. It is with that sense of direction that a student pursues post secondary options.

The very nature of academia lies in specialization. Our colleges and universities grant degrees to individuals who are experts in a certain field of study. The sum total of these individuals in our society creates an environment where no pursuit is left untapped, coupled with a workforce ready to tackle any challenge.

This climate of specialization does not mean that one cannot explore the peripheries of their imagination and dabble in a variety of pursuits. It simply asks that everyone complete his or her education by emphasizing one area of focus whose knowledge they can utilize to better the human condition.

Simply put, specialization fuels ingenuity. Medical colleges are continually expanding the scope of their research and the fields of study that they offer.

Through specialization, more research can be conducted and more programs can be offered to medical students. Thus you could say that specialization fosters an environment where answers to society’s most pressing questions and solutions to the most monumental problems are discovered.

The Mayo Clinic, a not-for-profit medical practice comprising 55,000 medical professionals based in Rochester, Minn. touts specialization as the cornerstone of medical innvoation. The Mayo Medical School, established in 1972 begins by exposing its studens to broad based health philosophy eventually leading them to a specialized field of study that results in doctors with the specialized knowledge to provide medical answers for the millions of patients who come through the Mayo Clinic.

Specialization in higher education completes the holistic education of the individual while maintaining an academic environment where cutting edge research can be performed and new horizons opened.

The men and women entering our institutions of higher education will be the pioneers of these new horizons.

Credentials are killing creativity (by Nick Green)

The Renaissance man is dead.  An over emphasis on credentials to the exclusion of creativity and innovation is its murderer.  Over-specialization in higher education is the bane of potential innovators in such fields as science and architecture who do not excel in the stark overly analytical world of degrees and credentials.

The “rebirth” of sorts that took place in Italy during the 14th Century unleashed a torrent of brilliant minds upon the world and allowed for individuals (well at least men) to follow their passions uninhibited by the constraints, fiscal and cerebral that we currently face. The Renaissance, however, is beginning to look like the last gasp of a very noble ideal: “Knowledge for the sake of knowledge.”

I am not saying that our situation is the same as it was during the Renaissance; the sheer bulk of human knowledge does in many instances require specialization. I certainly wouldn’t want a brain surgeon whose experience consists purely of a bachelor’s in biology. What I want to suggest is: while our technological age requires more study, pure talent and creativity can’t be overlooked.

One of my biggest gripes with the over-specialization of higher education lies not with the concept of it, but rather lies with the motivations many students have when joining academia.  The primary motivation for many medical students or lawyers is money, and a true and honest desire to help society and in turn better themselves is often missing.

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people say that they want to be a doctor or a lawyer and when asked to their motivation aside from honest motivations money is usually the largest factor not a love of science or a passion for rhetoric but the potential for higher earning potential. Money isn’t an inherently bad motivator, it doesn’t however, get the high quality results that passion and interest do.

A search for pure knowledge is now seen as unprofitable and ultimately futile, but this is far from the case. Most innovation occurs in the minds of creative individuals –not in health clinics where the currency of the day is getting through the day.
Academia needs to foster an environment of creativity and exploration –not rigid relearning from textbooks. The hallmarks of math and science are logic and reason, both exceptional things, but when a logical approach leads to illogical immovability then creativity must be called into play.

If I were to make one point in this rant it would be this: scientific and mathematical education without a genuine intellectual interest and a creative bent is pure and simple money grubbing.

I have perhaps been overly aggressive in regards to doctor’s and lawyer’s motives. They are not the only problem that I see in our education system. People no longer dream in the grand terms they used to. This is the fault of both students and their teachers. Some may think that our vast amount of knowledge requires smaller dreams, but I think that it is exactly the opposite; with cooperation and teamwork the twin devils of too much knowledge and too little time can be overcome and great things can be done.

The polymaths of the Renaissance achieved not because they caved in to the conventional wisdom of their times, but because they absorbed and then moved ahead with life. True knowledge is not attained by burying oneself in a book and then hoping to come out a sage.  It comes from diving head first into books and then having the common sense to swim your way out. As in all things, the middle way is usually the best, and in higher education it is no different. Book smarts would be nothing without a practical implication, and ambition would be nothing without follow through. 

Higher education is not broken our imaginations are.