Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Follow-ups: A few thoughts on specialization and excellence (part I)

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

  1. Reading a magazine, I note repeated discussions of the need for Germany to have a high competence in this-or-that new field—matching the common politician’s panic when Germany fails to be world-class in any given field. Moreover, this is not uncommon in e.g. Sweden or the U.S. either.

    *Specifically, the members’ magazine of VDE—a German professional organization for engineers, of which I am (still) a member from my days in IT.

    However, is this really needed? Some of the greatest benefits of modern society come from cities, countries, groups, companies, …, specializing and gaining a high degree of competence in a more limited number* of fields. By gaining this high competence, they remain competitive in the market and the market benefits from the higher average competence level in the field. This is similar to specialization by individuals in [1].

    *The suitable number will depend on the entity in question: a company might do well with one single field, a country might need dozens.

    My own Wuppertal is one of many good historical examples: By ducal decree, Wuppertal* received a local monopoly** (the “Garnnahrung”) on certain steps of yarn processing. This lead to a great concentration of textile industry, making Wuppertal’s fortune for long after the monopoly was abolished.

    *Strictly speaking, areas since joined into Wuppertal, which has existed as a legal entity only since 1929.

    **Which should not be seen as an endorsement of monopolies: the monopoly caused the specialization; the specialization was good.

    Such specialization can have many positive effects, including building a higher competence through interaction and increased competition between different masters, but also e.g. lower transportation costs between specialists in various sub-sections,* better infrastructure,** talent being drawn where there is a better chance of work, etc.

    *E.g. that the weaving industry can get its yarn locally, in large quantities and with many competitors to choose from, without having to shop Germany-wide.

    **E.g. that the public roads, treatment plants, whatnot used by the one company benefit the others too. (Note that similar companies tend to have similar needs.)

    I strongly suspect that trying to be good at everything is counter-productive and that specialization, to be really good at something, is the better strategy. If so, politicians should stop complaining about how their respective country is falling behind at new technologies A, B, and C—and instead laud and support its excellence at new technology D. Export D; import A, B, and C.

    As a caveat, being too much of a “one-trick pony” and failing to adapt to new developments is dangerous (and here concerns are reasonable). If, e.g., D had been an old technology, it might not have been a valid argument against lack of excellence with A, B, and C. Wuppertal, again, is a good example: in the 20th century, the lower production costs of e.g. India killed much of Europe’s textile industries. Wuppertal was no exception—but it had some four hundred (!) good years before that.

  2. In [1], I am critical of the U.S. system of requiring a bachelor for certain professional degrees, the (potential) lack of specialization found in “general studies” or “liberal studies”, and the possibility to get a degree* in a softer field while being weak at thinking. I also mention the lower university-entry ages of older times. Factor in the shorter U.S. high school (compared to e.g. Germany),** and the use of variations of “bachelor” and “college” to refer to secondary education in some other countries, and I suspect that we have an unfortunate clash of ideas and terminology that lead us away*** from a better way to handle education, in that students are increasingly forced to go through two stages of education (high school, bachelor) that try to fill the same purpose.

    *Note that I do not necessarily claim either that it is possible to be good in a field while being a weak thinker, or that a weak thinker would profit as much from the studies as a great thinker. The point is that the degree it self is attainable and proves next to nothing about someone’s intelligence.

    **Indeed, it could be argued that at least the first year of a U.S. college is high-school level from a Swedish or German perspective. Cf. e.g. parts of an older comparison ([2]) of my own education with a U.S. J.D. “doctorate”.

    ***Including e.g. the “Bologna” reforms in Europe.

    How to do it better? Let a bachelor be something with a low degree of specialization* and let it be a pre-requisite for e.g. “med school”—but let it come at a younger age, e.g. 15 through 19. Either the students already have the brains to handle it, possibly with some softening to compensate for lack of experience and maturity, or they likely never will. For those that do not,** other educational venues or work should be available. Notably, the benefits of having both e.g. a German Abitur*** and a U.S.-style Bachelor are small when we look at suitability for higher (or even higher) education. Compared to today, this might or might not leave the student short in some areas, but these areas not being necessary for higher education, they can safely be left for the students’ spare time and private interests—should they be so inclined. (I also suspect that the loss would be much smaller than the official syllabus might indicate, considering both memory failures over time and that much of high-school would likely be subsumable in the bachelor. Indeed, when we look at the recent U.S. situation, a considerable portion of college is spent teaching the students what they should have learned in high school—but did not.)

    *As a consequence, more specialized topics, that might today be studied in the form of a bachelor, would earn another degree—as used to be the case in Germany (e.g. the various Diplom-X degrees) and partially still is the case in Sweden. This type of bachelor would be in the “general studies”/“liberal studies”/“liberal arts” area, possible with some hybrid traces of the old high school.

    **The implied restoration of the filter effect is a positive. Do not let PC thinking, unrealistic expectations on humans, and “no child left behind” ruin education.

    ***Secondary education which is longer and decidedly tougher than U.S. high school—but still well short of a U.S. bachelor. (The former is more comparable to the “mittlere Reife” than to the Abitur.) Also see [2]. Note that Germany, to some degree, already performs the type of filtering that I wish, but is increasingly falling into the “everyone must have the Abitur” trap and, thereby, moving in the wrong direction, towards less excellence.

    Disclaimer: This assuming that the traditional system of “go to school first; work later” is followed. I favor an entirely alternate system of mixing work and education (preferably, not school) through-out life.

Written by michaeleriksson

August 8, 2019 at 5:35 pm

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