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Education for ‘specialisation’ in the knowledge economy

There are many reasons to believe that a liberal and interdisciplinary education in arts and sciences is the best to prepare you for work in a knowledge economy. In this world, service jobs overwhelmingly dominate and workers are required to show flexibility, creativity, empathy, team-working skills and so on. The, formerly competing, notions of inherent value and instrumental value blur together in jobs which require ‘virtual collaboration’, ‘cross-cultural competency’, ‘sense-making’, ‘design mindset’ and other things that would probably have befuddled our grandparents.

But no doubt many readers will say, ‘Well, that’s alright in principle, and I may even agree that one should educate oneself as widely as possible and have some knowledge of both science and the humanities or social sciences; I even grant you that this ideal of education has both an inherent and an instrumental value in our new economic world, but you can’t do everything: I don’t understand what this education will give me in terms of specialisation, and I need to specialise in my education in order to get a job’.

There are two things to say here. The first is that specialisation does not depend on eliminating either arts or sciences from your education. Indeed, in our increasingly connected world it is precisely all sorts of interdisciplinary combinations across the sciences and humanities or social sciences that are required in order to specialise: in digital humanities, in health projects, in human computer interaction, in sustainability, in computer gaming and so on. Ask yourself what kind of education best befits each of these contemporary areas of enquiry or work and you will see that all require combinations and ranges of disciplines, usually crossing the science/non-science divide. There is plenty of specialism in these areas available to someone who wishes to combine arts and sciences and, indeed, in my work I have the privilege of seeing many remarkable young people educate themselves in this way.

But the second point is perhaps even more relevant for those linking their education to a future job. That is the notion that academic specialisation is needed for white collar knowledge work. This is, frankly, a misunderstanding. The correlation between single academic disciplines and the world of white collar work has, for years, been weak. That is why around 2/3 of graduate jobs do not require a background or qualification in any particular academic ‘discipline’ at all. And it’s why universities ended up making the argument about ‘transferable skills’: ‘In studying discipline X, you will learn lots of things which, although not really connected with the content of your degree, will be essential in allowing you to do job Y – in a very different area from your subject discipline.’ In this regard, it is well-known that consultancy firms, banks, NGOs, the Civil Service and others take onto their graduate schemes everyone from French historians and classicists to geneticists and anthropologists.

I’m not knocking specialism per se. In some sense, to be any good at something, you have to specialize. But if you stick at anything at all and do it properly for a number of years you will become a specialist in it. However, for the vast majority of us – at least in the UK and the US, and increasingly in all the global professional classes – specialisation comes on the job. You learn it over years while working. It has to come on the job because complex knowledge work does not map well onto learning academic disciplines in a university context. So the worry about connecting academic specialisation with graduate employment is largely an illusion. Which academic specialisation do you need to ‘work with local authorities to improve engagement via digital’ or to ‘work with the information architecture department on stakeholder expectations’ or to be ‘Head of Transparency’ at a major transport company? Recently an experienced asset manager with 15 years of work in the City spoke at my university and stressed that moving around between very different areas of the City every two years was common, that work in the financial sector ‘was not a profession’ and that native intelligence, a broad and deep education and ‘GCSE mathematics’ could get you very far. There are specialist ‘interface platform salesmen’, ‘care consultants’, ‘social media marketeers’ and ‘business development advisors’. In all these areas and many more academic specialisation is at best unnecessary.

When we are young we don’t think about these jobs. We think about being a train driver or a doctor or a

lawyer or a footballer. Those are the jobs in the Janet and John story books. As far as I know, children’s literature is yet to feature a video marketing executive, brand consultant or pensions advisor but it is in these jobs that most of us work. Very few of us now are now farmers or joiners, and even the traditional white collar professions of lawyers, accountants and doctors may soon be under pressure.

The reality is that 80% or so of us in services are working in jobs with strange titles that might take a while to explain to your 1980s self – if you have one. I think of this with respect to my own work. What do I do? Well, I work in a university but my ‘specialism’ is creating, setting up and running complex multi- and inter-disciplinary programs in higher education. I’m not a train driver, lawyer or even the pop star or a footballer that I dreamt of as a teenager, and, to be honest, I could not have seen this job coming in my 20s or 30s – but I absolutely love it. It’s infinitely intellectually rich and continually surprising, it feels important in that we are offering something to very bright students that was not there before and the hundreds of relationships I can have with interesting and creative people make it constantly refreshing. If these kinds of jobs are ‘service’ jobs, I’m all for them and I can only hope that my students will have the fortune to find a job half as rewarding as mine.

This problematizing of the notion of a specialist has led recently to an interesting revival in the notion of the ‘generalist’ as a positive type. Several business thinkers such as Richard Martin, Kenneth Mikkelsen, Simon Terry and Reuven Gorsht have reflected on their own careers and come to the conclusion that it is their positive traits as generalists that have allowed them to succeed. This is an interesting movement to reclaim a term that had fallen out of fashion and it is in keeping with the idea that we are at the beginning of some kind of revolution brought about by the current wave of technology. In periods of great change,  people who can see the bigger picture and are able to make connections across previously disconnected areas of thought and practice become valuable as ‘sense-makers’, leaders and collaborators.

Whether one wishes to be a proud generalist or simply to join one of the many white collar jobs not well aligned with academic subjects, it is certainly not necessary to specialise in the study of one discipline at university. So what other, perhaps better, options might there be? Well, firstly one might encourage intellectual breadth in those students capable of it. Almost all jobs in services will benefit from some knowledge of science and technology as well as the sort of knowledge normally associated with the humanities or softer social sciences. Learning another language has obvious instrumental value as well as a kind of inherent value in broadening the mind and allowing different perspectives on culture. The kind of education that requires a student to meet both scientific and non-scientific challenges will certainly be intellectually and psychologically demanding, perhaps preparing a student best for a range of careers that look set to meet them in the knowledge economy. Apart from this sort of breadth which is beneficial in most white collar jobs there are other, bigger and arguably more powerful gains from this sort of education. Margaret Boden has spoken of the connection between creativity and exposing students to complex intellectual environments. 

And recently one of my students gave a fascinating and detailed account of how her interdisciplinary and liberal education gave her an ‘in’ when talking to law firms as she was able to connect her interests in politics, philosophy and smart cities to legal practice in such a way that may not have been possible for a single honours student.

Of course we will always need academic specialists. In universities a particular type of detailed work and scholarly research gets done which is essential for the progression of knowledge. But somewhere north of 96% of our graduates will not do such work in their lives. Rather than become experts in what they study, they will become experts in what they do, in one of the millions of new and wonderful jobs that are appearing in the knowledge economy. For these students – the large majority – breadth, range, fearlessness in learning new things and experience of learning in a varied and complex environment may be of more value than academic specialisation.

Photos under public license.

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