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Specialism, Generalism, Details and the Big Picture

Interdisciplinarity is in vogue in education. It’s been in vogue in the US for a while and throughout most of the last 100 years some major institutions in the States have offered interdisciplinary modules or fully interdisciplinary degrees. The discussion is now in full flow in the UK, after some isolated but noticeable attempts at similar projects over the last 50 years or so. It is widely agreed that in areas such as International Development, Gaming, Behavioural Economics, Human-Computer Interaction, Sustainability, Urban Planning, Digital Humanities and many other areas where exciting research is going on, interdisciplinarity is key to getting things done. The funding councils fund interdisciplinary projects, interdisciplinary research centres abound and UCL is launching its interdisciplinary undergraduate degree in Arts and Sciences, of which I am the Director.

There is a historic connection between interdisciplinary studies and a wider, more general higher education. Crudely, one can see that if putting two established disciplines together leads to interdisciplinarity then attempting to put four or five together may lead to a broader, more general education.

I think the case for interdisciplinarity is easier to make, so I would like to grapple with a bigger beast: the argument for a rigorous, demanding more general higher education. Interdisciplinarity is a subset of generalism. So if we win the case for generalism, the case for interdisciplinarity is won. If we do not, interdisciplinarity still lives to fight its corner.

Now it struck me – whilst listening to a concert, as it happens – that the stand-off between those who believe only disciplines have academic value and those who see academic breadth as having value is a bit like the perennial misunderstanding between those in all walks of life who see themselves as ‘details’ people and those who pride themselves on ‘seeing the Big Picture’.

Put like this, I hope it highlights that both sides must concede ground. You cannot get any large project off the ground, keep it running or get it completed without both sorts of people. Big Picture people are often needed for ideas, to see where problems might arise and to keep the whole show motivated and on the road, but nothing of the project they cherish will be realised unless the details people in the team work through all the nitty-gritty to ensure that things function and the project delivers as promised. Conversely, details people may moan that ‘so and so thinks he’s so important but it’s all waffly words’ but without some Big Picture types to propose ideas, take creative risks and generally see big projects through there is nothing for details types to get stuck into and work on. Both sorts are needed and both sorts must learn to appreciate each other.

In my experience in education it seems that those who are disciplinary experts, who have a narrow field of expertise, can sometimes have a problem in seeing that there can be value, educational value, in having a wider vision, of keeping more in mind. And I think in this they are short-sighted. For those who will not go on to be disciplinary experts (and most white-collar workers are not disciplinary experts in an academic sense) having a breadth of academic education to as high a level as possible will serve them well in their professional lives. Of course we do not want all graduates to have a more general and interdisciplinary education – perhaps we only want a  small proportion to have such an education. Maybe, what: 10%? 20%? 40%? But for those bright all-rounders who wish to learn a language, handle some computer programming and learn a social science while at university (and countless other combinations one can think of), a more general education may be the right thing. Note that just as with the Big Picture/details people discussion, if the generalists start despising the specialists as narrow-minded and scholastic, fit only for PhDs after which they are very likely not to be able to get in job in their area of expertise, they are just as guilty of short-sightedness as their more disciplinary-focussed colleagues. Both versions of short-sightedness miss something and do not see the full picture of what education should provide.

One does hear the argument that university should only be for specialist training. This would limit university degrees to teaching the classic professions: Medicine, Law and Engineering, plus teaching those who wish to go on to be academics. I do not have the figures for what this approach would do to student numbers, but it would certainly more than halve them. Apart from the destruction of the sector that would ensue, I do not know of any historical example where such an approach has benefitted the country which has taken it.

But more than that, such a view seems to me to give up on the idea of ‘being educated’, and this I find worrying. It seems defeatist, if not cynical. It gives up on the idea that education is  inherently a good thing, that both for the individual and society as a whole, to seek out education in its widest sense – in either a specialist or generalist sense – has value.

Universities can provide for both: specialists and generalists. The academic challenge for specialists comes in the detail required when studying one discipline over several years. The academic challenge for generalists comes in being able to show competence in an exceptionally wide range of subjects and in meeting university requirements for depth, whilst keeping a wider view.

The word ‘university’ comes from the Latin universitas ‘the whole’. An institution which is ‘whole’, and which concerns itself with knowledge, should be able to incorporate the different approaches to knowledge that individuals can embody. A modern university should be able to incorporate both specialists and generalists and to find a way academically to value both.

Photo from Creative Commons and Klearchos Kapoutsis’ Photostream

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