Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

A few thoughts on specialization and excellence (part I)

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In my recent readings, discussions of problems with e.g. schools, uniformization*, and competence levels are quite common. There can be many explanations for this, but I have long been concerned about two specific contributors that I will expand on: Lack of specialization (this post) and fear of excellence (upcoming post).

*For want of a better word. My implication is the common tendency to e.g. mold the opinions of students into the same pattern or removing individualism from education in favour of a set schedule, as well as variations of the tall-poppy syndrome, and some related phenomena. “Harrison Bergeron” takes this problem to its extreme, but other examples include e.g. such simple things as one-size-fits-all schooling, the not uncommon politically correct brain-washing, or truly demented “social injustice” arguments. To expand on the last, I have repeatedly encountered cases of e.g. a teacher telling parents to not allow a child to read more advanced books at home than the school provides—because this would be a “social injustice” towards the other children and an “unfair” advantage for their own…

In days gone past, people* usually specialized early and heavily, often simply through following in the foot steps of their parents as e.g. farmers, smiths, merchants, …, from an early age. Even among those who did not, it was quite common to enter work-life or apprenticeships at very young ages, while those who entered universities often did so at what is today considered a high-school, possibly even junior-high, age**.

*Arguably more so on the men’s side, because men’s roles tended to be more diverse and the son following the father was more likely than the daughter–father and son–mother combinations. However, even if we posit, for the sake of argument and contrary to fact, that the women of yore were without exception house wives, then that too is a specialization—just one that happened to be shared by half the population.

**How the universities of now and then compare to each other, I leave unstated. The point is not the level of the education, but the earlier specialization. It might be noteworthy that while, in my understanding, the topics read at such young ages (trivium, quadrivium) were comparatively uniform over the student body, they were more still more specialized than today’s school.

Today, many countries (including Sweden, Germany, and the U.S.) have about 9 nine years of mandatory education with very little individual variation, and such a focus on cramming information on every conceivably topic down the throats of the students that they end up knowing next to nothing about most of these topics. (Not only because including more topics take away time and resources from other topics, but also because longer school days and more home work lead to more being forgotten—there is only so much that the human brain can retain in a given time span.) Voluntary, yet mandatory-for-all-practical-purposes, high school follows (the degree of uniformity varies considerably from country to country, however).

The U.S. and the post-Bologna Europe then has a bachelor or its equivalent as the minimum for anyone who wants to qualify as “educated”, for another three or four years of what increasingly amounts to school rather than university, with a following master being relatively common. Depending on choices made, this often includes a high degree of specialization, but can also amount to something fairly generic, e.g. within U.S. “general studies” or “liberal studies” bachelors.

In the end, educational specialization typically starts in the late teens or early twenties, and working life might be entered in the mid-twenties. (In both cases with some variations from country to country, with the U.S. system of requiring a bachelor before entering e.g. law or med school being a particularly negative example.)

Generally, there seems to be a very strong tendency to go for breadth first and depth later (if at all)—which naturally leads me to my main contentions:

There is nothing wrong with having a broad education. On the contrary, it has many benefits and I, myself, have always tried to be well rounded*. However: There is a definite risk of becoming the “Jack of all trades and master of none”, and it seems better to me to start with the depth than the breadth. The latter for several reasons, including that skills are useful at an earlier stage, that the students gain a better understanding of the learning processes and their degree of knowledge** (making it easier to cope in and master other areas), and that having reached a higher degree of mastery of one topic or field is (in my experience) more satisfying that a lower of several or a negligible of many.

*But, at least after I had wizened up, in combination with depth efforts—fully in line with my ideas here. I have certainly not gone deep in every field and on every topic I have dabbled with, but I have done it often enough, at least by the standards of depth of today, that I can speak with a clear conscience.

**The deeper the knowledge and understanding is, the more the insight tends to come, how much more there is not yet known and understood. Note e.g. how those with “easy” solutions to hard problems tend to be people with only a shallow understanding of the problems, or how many political activists put themselves on a pedestal to look down on people who understand the issues far better. This is a particular danger of the, in parts, very shallow education system of today, in combination with the extreme populism and manipulation attempts shown by so many politicians. Even having this awareness from one or two fields can be a great help in seeing the same risks in other fields. (That I complain more about what is wrong than make suggestions for how to do it better is not a coincidence—it is, at least partially, a result of my knowing that it is much easier for an outsider to spot a problem than it is for him to offer a good solution. Of course, if the “insiders” are dumb or ignorant enough, it can also happen that the outsider has a better suggestion to begin with, but that does not invalidate my original point.)

One way to attack this issue could be to allow and encourage a greater specialization no later than during secondary education, possibly to the point of a student taking just a handful of (self-chosen) subjects, be it through the course of the educational stage or just a given year, but having a greater number of hours dedicated to each of these subjects. An added benefit of this is that issues like boredom with school are likely to grow smaller, while students with wider interests can always broaden their studies at a later date or in their spare time, should they have the interest and energy.* An idea in a similar vein is to give** each child, from a very early age, a specific field of study or mental accomplishment***, a single instrument, and a single sport, and give him a go for a few years. I would not be surprised if this actually resulted in more well-rounded individuals, because it simultaneously allows for more specialization and more variety compared to a more regular curriculum.

*What I have seen from both myself and others point to a clear lesson: People with interest and curiosity naturally strive to learn more both in old and new areas, like thirsty horses greedily drinking, while those without will not drink even when lead to the water. The best school can do is often to just stimulate interests; the worst to kill them and to let the students associate learning with boredom and obligations.

**With some possibility to choose and a right to opt for something different should the original choice prove unsuitable—forcing children into activities often does more harm than good.

***Within the limits posed by age, obviously.

I stress that the above is with regard to some aspects of education. In other contexts I have lamented e.g. the lack of focus on critical thinking and related areas, as well as the low emphasis on e.g. “life skills” and interpersonal skills, over-focus on teachers and under-focus on books (for at at least some students), the grouping by age instead of ability, …

A few asides:

  1. A disadvantage of early specialization is that more in-depth knowledge and understanding is needed from teachers. This could turn out to be a tricky obstacle…
  2. A central tenant of my views on education is that own thinking is the most important aspect: What is read in a book or said by a teacher can be valuable as “raw material” or “processing instructions”—but the actual processing of the raw material still has to be done by the student. An in-depth approach is more likely to ensure that this thinking takes place, and does so with corresponding depth, than a “in-breadth” approach does. (Notwithstanding that impulses from other areas often can provide new perspectives and help with unexpected insights.) Similarly, the higher the work-load, the less likely it is that the students will have the time and energy to truly think, instead preferring to just read, copy, memorize, …
  3. This type of earlier specialization and/or entry to the work-force can play well with “life-long learning”, e.g. in that someone does not stay in school until 25, instead starting to alternate phases of work and study, or combining part-time work and part-time study, in his teens—and keeps at it.
  4. I read at least one article lamenting the increased focus on STEM topics and diminished focus on human-oriented topics*. I would disagree with this for the simple reason that certain topics (e.g math, theoretical physics, theoretical computer science) require an ability to think, and to think strictly, being able to follow and criticize reasoning, etc. For most other topics, even as brainy ones as philosophy (at least outside the areas of logic and the borders towards some STEM topics), there is too much subjectiveness, vagueness, and lack of stringency for this too be true (even if many would like it to be true). It is conceivable that some non-STEM topics might be, in some sense, more important from an abstract point of view; however, I would definitely take someone who knows how to think and still needs to learn over someone who is learned and still needs to develop his thinking skills. To boot, topics like math can be very humbling and useful in learning ones own limits and fallibility: If two people disagree in math, one of them is usually provably wrong; while in many other topics matters of taste, interpretation of circumstantial evidence, whatnot, can leave both feeling correct or have them “agree to disagree”—there is no need to be confronted with “I was wrong!”. Similarly, it is possible to spend five minutes with a text by a philosopher and come away with the faulty impression of having understood it and failing to understand that another half hour might have been needed; with a math proof, one typically either has understood it after five minutes (or half-an-hour) or one knows that the understanding is still missing**. Or compare a math problem with an ethical dilemma—it is possible to spend hours on the latter without a conclusion, but there will be a progress in those hours and in the end the student can always shrug the problem off with (the correct) observation that there is no actual solution to the problem; with the former, most of the time, one either finds or does not find a satisfactory solution. I am very far above the average in intelligence; I know from actual results that I was well above the average even among my strongly pre-filtered college class mates; and I still often found myself challenged to or beyond my limits during more advanced courses. Similarly with computer programming (my field of work): I am exposed to the fact that I make errors on a daily basis—the code was supposed to do ABC, but as can be seen it manifestly does ABD in this-or-that special case. Someone who writes in a natural language rarely has this type of feedback when we move past mere orthography (even grammar tends to be highly subjective these days).

    *I am a little uncertain what the original formulation and intention was, but the general idea was the contrast between topics dealing with the world and those dealing with humans. The specific scope might have been as narrow as e.g. “the classics” or as wide as non-STEM topics in general.

    **Obviously, there there can be nuances missed, points misunderstood, etc., in math that leads to similar problems; certainly, a more advanced mathematician might take away more than a beginner. However, the probability that one is exposed to the realization of “I do not understand this!” is larger in math.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 10, 2017 at 1:20 am

5 Responses

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  1. […] children increases the risk of a harmful uniformization and indoctrination (cf. e.g. parts of [1]. Note that this is not primarily a matter of being in school for a longer period—the main problem […]

  2. […] (This is the second part of longer discussion. See also part I.) […]

  3. […] is the third part of longer discussion. See also part I and part […]

  4. […] An intensive involvement with a certain activity, including computer games, can be a great source of self-knowledge, e.g. how one reacts when, what errors one tends to make, how one handles stress, … Similarly, it can be a form of training for at least some of the discovered problems. I have learned particularly much about myself from playing “Battle of Wesnoth”. This strengthens my opinion that it is important to build depth first and breadth second (cf. e.g. [2]). […]

  5. […] Two follow-ups to an earlier text ([1]): […]


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