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Reclaiming Generalism

Ask yourself this: would you prefer your prime minister to have studied one thing at university or to have had a more rounded higher education?

I put this question recently to a group of 60 school and college students who came to UCL. They had come to see what the Arts and Sciences degree was about. Many of them were interested to consider it as a degree they might take. When asking the question, I did my best to point out to the students that I might be biased. Further, I acknowledge that the opinion of such a group is also likely to be biased as, by attending our open day, these students showed that they were already interested in the possibility of a broader, interdisciplinary degree. Still, on a show of hands, no-one opted for a narrow education for our prime minister, and about 40 students (two thirds of the group) put up their hands to say they thought a broader higher education would be beneficial in such a role.

But if such an education might be valuable for our prime minister, how valuable might it be for the chair of a media company? Or a headmaster? Or the director of a multinational charity? Might not all such high-level jobs benefit from their incumbents having broad undergraduate degrees? One could multiply the number of possible jobs many times over.

A couple of weeks back I spoke at the Sunday Times Education Festival  (see Oliver Quinlan for this excellent live blog summary). Off the cuff I asked the audience a similar question: is there a case to be made for generalism in higher education? To my surprise the large majority put up their hands to say that they thought there was. Here the question was less loaded and I was actually expecting some dissent as the common concern one hears about a generalist education is that it is ‘dumbing down’ – more on that below.  No dissent was voiced.

From these encounters, and many others, I detect a growing feeling that there is a place for a broader, but still high-level, conception of undergraduate education – that we may have lost something by feeding so many young people through highly specialised degrees.

One source of this feeling I think is straightforward: it’s in the numbers.

When a country educates 5-10% of its population at university it is possible to make a case that the majority of such students need to be trained as specialists: doctors, lawyers, engineers and maybe one or two other very specific things. But when 30-35% of the population go to university, it is clear that this can no longer hold.

Now some might turn the situation on its head here and say ‘Precisely: the problem is that we are sending too many young people to university; we should have fewer people in higher education and those that do go to university should focus on specialisms’.

One can argue about the numbers – it’s a complex argument involving everything from values to an assessment of the current and future needs of the economy – but the assumption of those who argue for a smaller number of people at universities, focussing on specialisms, appears to be that there is little real value in a broad higher education. And here I think they are wrong.

One reason they are wrong, as the students who visited us and the delegates at the Festival seem to acknowledge, is that there are many important positions in the world of work where we would like the office-holders to be educated to a high level, but in a broad range of knowledge. When people hold positions of power and responsibility in our society, it is important that they have a broad, high-level education which allows them to relate to all those with whom they interact and to prosper in as many areas of their work as possible. Complex leadership roles in a democratic society require such an education. And the necessity of such an education is arguably becoming more important as such roles increasingly require an engagement with wider ranges of thought and practice, and with those from other cultures and traditions.

In some ways there is nothing new in holding this belief in the value of a high-level general education; it is a direct return to the liberal values of Newman, Arnold and the pioneers of American higher education. Of course, the notion of liberal arts extends back even further, to the very foundations of European universities. But the view has fallen out of favour here in the UK during the last several decades when the value of specialisation has dominated arguments about the purpose of higher education. Now may be the time to reclaim this ground.

Even if we acknowledge that a broad higher education is of value for many professional lives, there remain at least two worries which are often expressed about fostering such an education.

  1. The worry about ‘dumbing down’

  2. The worry about elitism.

I’ll try to address briefly each of these.

1. I think the worry about dumbing down is largely misplaced. Although it may be true in fact that those who have attempted broader and more interdisciplinary curricula have ‘softened’ them in some way, there is no logical reason why this should happen. Indeed, it could be argued that requiring students to excel in a range of subjects, and to master certain interdisciplinary ideas such as methodology, is more exigent than feeding them through a system which requires them to pass exams in a well-codified disciplinary structure. Can we honestly say that those who pass through a disciplinary degree in, say, Physics, as I did, have not found ways to game the system, choose some easy options, learn to the test etc. in a way which might, in fact, make it much easier to attain good marks in this single discipline than gaining a good level in a broader disciplinary palate constituted of, say, Arabic, History and Sociology?

The general/interdisciplinary programme can be as rigorous and academic as its designers choose it to be. To give just one example, I am increasingly convinced of the value of an ‘interdisciplinary research methods’ course at undergraduate level. Such courses currently exist mostly at postgraduate level (surely a good indication that they constitute respectable ‘high-level’ thinking!) but there is no reason why we cannot introduce them at undergraduate level, or even earlier, as part of a philosophical and practical approach to the study of method. Such a study has deep historic roots (going back at least to Descartes), yet remains current and relevant as the accumulation of data and a scrutiny of the way that data is collected and analysed becomes ever more important in our lives. There are several other examples one could give of inherently interdisciplinary courses which provide breadth in higher education in a rigorous and academic way. But I trust the point is clear.

2. The worry about elitism is harder – both to nail in its ‘worry’ form and also (perhaps consequently) to answer. The arguments on both sides are longer here, so, for the purposes of the blog, let me just state the worry and my answer fairly baldly.

As I understand it, those worried about elitism in education are concerned about who calls the shots, who has the power to say which knowledge is to be privileged – and this cashes out, ultimately, in which knowledge is rewarded monetarily and which knowledge benefits those in power, or conveys power on those who hold it. In the context under discussion here, this worry translates:  ‘Who is to say what sort of general high-level education – i.e. that currently offered by universities – is the education to be privileged? Is not any particular conception of what constitutes this high-level generalism vulnerable to being highjacked by some ruling elite or other and made to serve their interests?’

The first part of my answer to this is simply that I believe education, as it has been understood in the West, pretty much since Socrates (pace a few subsequent aberrations) and largely promulgated by universities, to be a moral and social good which we should defend.

The second part begins by conceding, since we are discussing generalism, that the nature of what constitutes a high-level general education will be contested. But it is in universities that we find the space where such contestation is allowed, even valued. Just because we have no codified notion, no diagram or representation with strict boundaries to show what constitutes ‘an educated person’, does not mean we should not proceed with the project. Indeed, to give up on the grounds that there is some disagreement or on the basis of worries like those expressed above seems to me to risk far worse than to proceed in hope. It smacks of defeatism, of a negation of the very idea that we should strive to be educated. Are we to say that there is no such thing as being educated in a 21st century democratic society? Or are we to say that we only allow narrow specialist knowledge to count as ‘real knowledge’ in higher education? Such recoiling in front of the problem seems to me to betray many of the values about education which we hold dear.

Let us then not be deterred too much by such worries and let us defend generalism on two counts: it is in the notion of the educated generalist that we find the essence of our positive belief in what education can achieve; and if this aspiration alone is not enough, let us admit that for many of our graduates, for those going on to lead in industry, media and the non-profit areas of our society, a high-level general education fits them better for such a life than many other existing options.

Photo of reclaimed ground under CC license from Geograph

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