Breadth vs Depth in university education

Breadth vs Depth in university education

Health Warning:

I am finding it increasingly difficult to keep separate my personal views about education, as expressed on this blog, and the work I am doing on Arts and Sciences BASc. I guess this is inevitable and may be no bad thing. It is worth saying, though, that by no means all that I write or say here will feed into or be applicable or relevant to courses we offer on the BASc.

A couple of weeks back I was taken with a comment from my colleague Prof Vincent Walsh that interdisciplinary breadth is in fact depth in a meaningful and contemporary sense. I propose here to take up this idea and develop it.

Visualising breadth – first step

Vin’s idea takes the form of a visualisation. Imagine you learn quite a few different things in parallel: say, engineering, economics, politics, psychology and marketing – to take quite a diverse group of subjects (disciplines), and ones that you would not traditionally study together on a degree programme. Now imagine those subjects are spread out horizontally, like beads on a chain. The picture is that you are getting broad learning in a horizontal direction, but you do not get much vertical depth. The picture of depth is also – perhaps somewhat paradoxically – usually associated with ‘upward’ (or ‘ vertical’) progression in learning. It seems impossible to get a vertical type of learning if you spread your subjects widely in a horizontal direction. But we’ll come back to how you can convert this picture of breadth into one of depth below.

No-one can claim, I think, that a student would be able to study each of those disciplines in the example above in the sort of depth that would be required on a single honours programme. You would not be able to take enough courses to allow you to progress to the highest (‘deepest’?) levels in each subject. But is it necessary to learn in this way to do something profound and interesting with the knowledge you can gain by having a more horizontal understanding across a greater number of disciplines? Can you convert your breadth into working depth?

What sort of knowledge do you need outside universities?

Here I want to step outside the university for a moment and look at what business leaders say about the sort of knowledge they think is important in managing large enterprises. (These quotes are taken from the BASc website).

“Nowadays, the complexity of materials and components, from a…global supply chain, means that your management must have a thorough knowledge of the entire…chain and exactly how it all fits together, in order to make the right decision. The real stars of the future will be the Managers who take on board all this information to deliver projects…” [Representative from a leading retail chain, quoted in Global Skills, an LSIS publication]

“Every single person in business needs to acquire the ability to change, the self-confidence to learn new things…The idea that we can win with brilliant scientists and technologists alone is nonsense. It’s breadth of vision, the ability to understand all the influences at work, to flex between them and not be frightened of totally different experiences and viewpoints that hold the key…[The] specialist who cannot take the holistic view…is no use at all” [Sir John Harvey Jones, former leader of ICI, quoted in Robinson, Ken; 2011; Out of Our Minds; Capstone]

There is a clear expression here (and many other similar quotes are available) that to have a holistic or ‘profound’ view of the company or supply chain one must, in fact, have a broad view of all the processes involved.

Visualising knowledge – the next step: turning breadth into depth

And so the image we can use to turn horizontal learning into vertical learning is this: take your horizontal learning, your beads on a chain, and simply turn the chain through 90 degrees so that it is hanging vertically. Now just think of this as depth. What you have is a way to understand, for example and to use the quote above, the entire supply chain of a manufactured product from start to finish. You start with an understanding of engineering in order to consider how your product is manufactured, work up to how you will monetize, promote and sell your product (marketing/psychology) and perhaps end with an appreciation of how the product might be brought to a global market-place (economics and politics). Thus you have deep knowledge of the processes of your supply chain, but this can only be achieved by some understanding of each knowledge ‘bead’ on the chain – a chain which now hangs vertically, remember, giving you that idea of progression upwards, vertically.

This image of breadth giving depth in many real world problems (the sorts of problems that are often addressed in the literature about interdisciplinarity) is powerful. Why, then, is the importance of breadth so little understood or appreciated in universities and, indeed, by many external stakeholders?

Scholarship and ‘the real world’

I think part of the issue is the distinction between scholarship and the sorts of problems that arise outside of universities – the so-called ‘real-world’ problems. It is the duty of many academics to go as deeply into the details of their subjects as they are able, to isolate themselves from distraction and to try to push forward – in sometimes very difficult details – in their specific areas. This, I think, is appropriate for many – maybe most – areas of scholarship and research.

But it is a fact that when one comes to try to apply such knowledge outside of universities, the application of it takes place in a wider, messier, more complex situation. And an effective application of this specialist knowledge simply requires more breadth than usual scholarship can attain. Thus for an understanding of how to apply this knowledge, of how to use it, one requires more breadth in one’s studies. I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to say that for a profound  understanding (to continue the depth metaphor) of how to use and apply this sort of specialist knowledge one may require a considerable amount of breadth. Once again, the breadth has become depth – a depth of understanding of how to use knowledge and make it effective. Vin Walsh – in a related context – talks of being an effective scientist and claims that his work as a neuroscientist will only ever have value outside of the laboratory if he is able to bring all sorts of interdisciplinary knowledge and skills to bear upon it.

We can, therefore, establish a value for breadth in learning in terms of highly valued knowledge which is applicable outside universities in important and high-powered situations. There will always be debate about exactly how much breadth is desirable before one is really spreading oneself too thinly. That is a discussion to be had in each individual case. But I think there can be no doubt that there is real value in widening some university curricula and encouraging students to consider breadth seriously if they wish to apply their academic and intellectual knowledge to work outside a university.

What sort of knowledge should you get at university?

Of course this argument is unlikely to cut any mustard with those in universities who think that university education is stand-alone; that it need not, perhaps even should not, look in any way outside of the university walls while the education within those walls is going on. For academics and scholars of this persuasion a different argument about the value of breadth in some cases will need to be made.

Are there any academics/scholars who object to any of the above? Anyone else think we risk serious dumbing down by significantly widening the curriculum in some cases?

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