Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘specialization

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

leave a comment »

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

A few thoughts on specialization and excellence (part III)

with 2 comments

(This is the third part of longer discussion. See also part I and part II.)

Annoyingly, I find that I left out a major subtopic from part II: Denial that one thing* can be be better than the other, or even that there can be differences between them. This post is thrown together a little haphazardly with the aims to 1) be able to close the discussion, 2) have enough material to justify a part III.

Among the disadvantages of such stances is, obviously, that it becomes harder for people to gain opportunity to excel and recognition when they do; ditto the risk that suboptimal things are taught, that societal progress is reduced, etc. Of course, in many cases, it can be discussed whether two items are comparable**, which of the two is the better, whether a certain valuation only applies from one perspective or for one purpose, what is a matter of objective evaluation and what is a matter of personal taste, etc.—and, yes, sometimes the comparison is highly dubious to begin with***. If that was the level of discussion, I would have no beef—but it is not: Far too often blanket rulings of “everything is equally good” are made. Often, especially in politically correct areas, merely raising the discussion can be a cause of condemnation and vicious attacks.

*I deliberately use a vague word, because there are so many, very different examples.

**In a mathematical sense; along the lines of comparing two oranges and not an orange and an apple.

***Humans appear to have a strong tendency to feel superior to others based on groups, including even who favors what sports team. The PC crowd is no better, having merely substituted one “superior” grouping with another. This is often the PC crowd, it self, or a sub-section of it; however, individual choices can include e.g. a particular combination of sexual and gender orientation—I have seen people who non-ironically identify with something containing two or even three hyphens… Sadly, the problem with sexism/misandry within the feminist movement is enormous; while the black movement, in my impression so far, contains considerably more racism than the white (or black) overall populations. Whenever contrasting two groups, while being a member of one of them, it pays to really consider whether the evaluation is a knee-jerk support of the “home team” or whether there are actual arguments to support it.

To consider a few examples (I stress that these are not all examples of actual problems; some merely illustrate the general attitude; and all are resulting from “free association”):

  1. My early school years (I doubt that things have improved…) and much of the children’s literature I encountered had a very strong focus on “different—not better”. A particularly telling example*, is how I talked to the school nurse after we had been measured for height and she showed me a diagram of height projections. I used the word “normal” to refer to the average curve, a use I still consider harmless—and saw her go into full panic mode, as if I had just called those lying on more extreme curves, including my own**, deficient.

    *And I have to admit that I, after so many years, remember very little else with sufficient detail to use as an example. In my strong suspicion, I would not remember this incident either, had the nurse reacted less strongly…

    **I was an unusually fast grower as a child, and had a projection well over two meters at the time. (Adult me topped out at a more modest 1.91 ~ 6’3”.)

  2. In a natural continuation, we have the whole “differently abled” thing: In many cases, this can be a justified phrasing, e.g. with some groups of autists, or blind people who have developed other senses and abilities to a considerable degree. In many other cases, however, the correct prefix cannot reasonably be “differently ”—it should be “dis-”: In most cases of disabilities, we have a clear possibility to compare, with no or only an inadequate compensation in other areas. Still going with “differently abled” in these cases is a clear sign of an agenda.

    Of course there is no evil in e.g. considering someone with a bum leg less able as walker or a soccer player—the evil would arise when he is considered of less worth in unrelated areas, say suitability to hold office. Similarly, going a bit off topic, it is not the words and descriptions used that matter, and just finding more pleasing names does not alter the underlying facts.

  3. And another step further, we have the Swedish obsession (at least back then) with educating everyone together, irrespective of ability—piece of shape-less dough in, kneed and bake, identical bread out. That someone was offered to skip classes was extremely rare* at the time and other forms of “acceleration” were mostly unheard of; only the worst of the worst** had to re-take a year; and everyone had to do virtually the same things. Of the re-takers, a particularly illustrative case is Hans-Erik, who joined my class for a year in (likely) fifth grade, during his slow, wasteful, even cruel*** progress through school: Hindered by severe cerebral palsy, he had only very barely managed to get where he was at age 17 (!), about six years older than the rest of us.

    *I recall only one case among the several hundred children that I came into contact with during my school years, but there might have been others.

    **I recall only three cases, but there almost certainly were more.

    ***Off topic, this is still something that infuriates me: Imagine being forced to spend year in and year out in school, getting no where, always the slowest, ridiculed by half the class-mates, seen as a recalcitrant obstacle by the teachers, …—and what for? Even a nominal fifth-grade level is almost useless for a modern adult, and his real grade level was lower yet. If he ever entered the work-force, it would by necessity be in so simple a position that his school years brought him no benefit. (And with his coordination problems and severe speech impediment, there is no guarantee that any job would be available.) Any personal benefit from education would be dwarfed by time wasted during schooling. Why not just let him spend his time having fun?

  4. One of my own first contacts with the current negative trends in the U.S. college world was reading an introductory text in linguistics, where the author claimed, without supporting arguments or qualifications on the claim, that “Ebonics”* was just as good as standard English (possibly also that no language was better than any other, but my memory is to vague). This might be superficially true in that all languages** with some degree of development can fulfill the same tasks, just like one Turing-complete programming language can, in some sense, replace another. However, just as with programming languages, it does not end there. On the contrary, there are many factors to consider, often with a dependency on the perspective applied. Take e.g. (inherent to the language) expressiveness, number of words and nuances available, the risk of ambiguity, the ease of learning; or e.g. (relative the overall world) number of speakers, compatibility when comparing the language at different points of time, available literature; or (subjectively) aesthetics.

    *Do not get hung up on the specific example. The rest of the discussion is mostly in the abstract and I do not make direct comparisons within this specific pair. (Nor do I imply that English would necessarily win all comparisons, e.g. ease of learning, if they were made.) The point of Ebonics as an example is a combination of the claim almost certainly being motivated by politically correct and non-linguistic concerns, and the failure to provide a supporting argumentation, although this pairing should have made such an argumentation non-negotiably necessary, considering the typical reputation of Ebonics. (Indeed, at the time, I assumed that the claim was outright and obviously incorrect. Today, I do tend strongly towards rejection, but am too cautious to do so outright, seeing that my knowledge of Ebonics is highly limited—and I focus my criticism on the way she approached the claim.)

    **Used in a wide sense, without e.g. differing between language, in a narrower sense, and dialect.

  5. When we extrapolate such claims within a single language, the result is the currently popular and very detrimental everything-goes-because-there-is-no-right-and-wrong attitude. (Cf. e.g. an older post discussing prescriptive and descriptive grammar.)
  6. The PC crowd and the Left is obviously a major source of other examples, many that have been discussed repeatedly in the past, notably the common absolute denial that differences in outcome can result from differences in inherent characteristics. I will not rehash them here, but note that the interesting point for the purposes of this post is not what the truth* of the matter is—but how the truth-finding is approached. Feminists, e.g., tend to start with a certain set of assumptions (a new-born as a “tabula rasa”, social construct this and Patriarchy that, etc.), and then interpret observations to fit this assumption—while the very thought that in-born differences could exist is anathema.

    *But, yes, the evidence in favour of in-born differences of various kinds is much stronger than against when we compare e.g. men and women.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 19, 2017 at 11:24 pm

A few thoughts on specialization and excellence (part II)

with 3 comments

(This is the second part of longer discussion. See also part I.)

To continue with the topic of excellence:

My main concern is that excellence is very often not recognized, considered important, given opportunity to develop, …. Consider e.g.:

  1. Overlapping with part I, we have the obvious problem that too little specialization prevents excellence from being reached. A sad fact is that many go through their entire lives without being more than moderately good at anything—or have a sole area of excellence that is of little practical value*, e.g. because it arises out of a hobby.

    *This type of excellence is of course still personally satisfying and can help with personal development, but if we compare say an excellent physician who dabbles in Skyrim with a second-rate physician who excels at said game, who is more beneficial to society? Who is likely to better provide for his family? Who can make a better life for himself?

    An obvious observation is that people who specialize earlier can reach excellence earlier—and when it comes to reaching the very highest top, to be one of just several of the best in world at something, early specialization is often a necessity. The type of “Jack of all trades” schooling that I discuss in part I could turn out to be severely detrimental when it comes to producing e.g. Nobel-Prize winning physicists. Indeed, if school was the only source of education/training, it would be a massive obstacle; those who excel usually do so through own efforts on top of school—or, at least in earlier times, instead of school. What if Mozart had had the one or two hours of music class a week that I had—and then decided to be a professional composer or concert pianist after graduating high school?

  2. The way schools, including colleges, too often have an “everyone gets a trophy” approach, where dumbing down and grade inflation hides* many differences, while feedback that could cause students to realize weaknesses and move forward is suppressed. Similarly, one of the greatest benefits of higher education was the filter effect present: Having received a certain degree was a far stronger sign of accomplishment and ability than it is today.**

    *When even merely decent students can get A’s, how do we tell who is decent, good, very good, …? (Aside from problems not directly relevant to this post, like how to compare grades from different generations.)

    **Which also implies that the higher rate of college graduates, unlike what naive politicians like to believe, does not increase the overall excellence to a very high degree (in a worst case, the effect could actually be negative): In order for every larger numbers of students, with a lower and lower “least common denominator”, to actually graduate, the requirements have to be lowered correspondingly. This not only contributes further to the weakening of the filter effect, but it also implies that the better students learn less and less compared to what they once would have learned.

  3. How members of too many professional groups are seen as fungible, e.g. (in my area) the grossly incorrect belief that any software developer can be a drop-in replacement for any other. Such misconceptions are common among e.g. politicians, managers, and those within the respective profession whose own low competence hamper their judgment (cf. Dunning–Kruger).

    This is particularly dangerous in areas like social reform, where just increasing the number of graduates in a field, members of a profession, whatnot, is seen as sufficient to solve problems. (See also the preceding footnote.)

    It is also an at least partial explanation of e.g. the constant German employer complaint about “Fachkräftemangel”*, while media and politicians point to the many unemployed who would love to have this-or-that position. The point is not that too few are interested, nor even necessarily that they lacked the right qualifications on paper. The (partial**) true explanation is found in the lack of candidates who actually have the skills needed. This is particularly interesting in the case of the German apprentice system: College skeptics in e.g. the U.S. point towards Germany and suggest that something similar be implemented in lieu of sending everyone to horrendously expensive colleges—while the German system is starting to fail, because not enough quality apprentices can be found. Why can they not be found? Because the potentially attractive candidates go to college*** instead…

    *Effectively, that employers cannot find sufficiently many qualified people to hire. I have been unable to find a truly satisfactory translation, but “skill shortage” and “higher skill shortage” have a great overlap, while Wikipedia suggests “labour shortage”. A combined “skilled labour shortage” comes close to being a literal translation.

    **Another partial explanation is the lack of people who both have the skills and are cheap. This is on-topic when we look at highly proficient people being underpaid (because employers misprioritize); it is off-topic when we look at employees who simply do not bring enough value to offset their price tag.

    ***In all fairness, college is much, much cheaper in Germany, implying that the cost–benefit analysis looks different compared to the U.S.

  4. The increase of “commoditization” as fields once relatively small and relatively filled with highly competent people grow and are increasingly filled with less competent people, lose in status, see individual experts be replaced by companies providing “experts” (or hiring real experts for a lower salary while pocketing the gains originally available to the expert); or where typical tasks are increasingly moved to a less prestigious role.* The IT world provides good examples, where e.g. the growth of software (and in particular web) development has caused employers to cast quite wide nets to fill positions, including hiring many people who are outright unsuitable for the job; how the type of contracting I do is getting a bad reputation because of the many people entering the field with more wish for money** than ability; or how the field is saturated with “talent agents”, often forming chains, just interested in getting a commission for having (in analogy) brought talent and show in connection, and see no down-side when the cooperation does not work out—anyone is as good as the next, as long as the money flows…

    *Which is not to deny that this can have positive effects too. Commoditization, which is a quite common phenomenon as time goes by, is usually bad for (the provider of) the commodity but often good or good to a certain degree for the customer. It becomes bad for the customer too, when e.g. he cannot differentiate between who or what is worth the money resp. when spending more money gives a sufficient return on investment and when it is a waste, or when what he gets for the money is largely a matter of luck.

    **At the same time putting a downward pressure on hourly and daily rates, through a mixture of over-saturation and the customers’ common inability to see differences in ability (but ability to do see differences in price).

  5. Related to commoditization is the problem of using criteria for e.g. raises and promotions that are not based on performance and ability (for instance age or years of employment), as can happen in e.g. the civil service or in areas where wages are set more-or-less in a blanket manner based on employer–union negotiations. A major problem for Swedish companies who want to down-size is that they often have to let people go by the last-in–first-out principle, which can imply letting the newly hired star-to-be go and keeping someone who has spent the last twenty years barely avoiding being fired for incompetence and negligence.
  6. Variations of the “tall poppy” syndrome, where those who excel are disliked, looked down upon, or even sabotaged—starting in school with “teacher’s pets”, “geeks”, and “nerds”.* This to a point that I have heard claims that some boys, especially from macho cultures, deliberately abstain from study to not lose street cred and coolness points. In adult life, the problem likely grows smaller, both due to greater maturity and less competition/more collaboration; however, it definitely still exists, especially when weaker employees feel themselves threatened by stronger new comers.

    *Which is not automatically to say that everyone classified as such actually excels, only that those who do excel academically are often given such names.

  7. Likely strongly overlapping, extreme “social justice” positions.

    “Harrison Bergeron” depicts the phenomenon taken to its absurd conclusion, but real-life examples include e.g. such simple things as 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… (Sadly, I have read about a quite a few such cases over the years, be it from the U.S., Germany, or Sweden. The latter was long permeated by an attitude that it was better for everyone to have the same, even if it meant making things worse for one party without improving them for another…)

As an aside, it can pay to keep in mind that society, communities, organizations, …, are often better of with specialists than with generalists. Would you rather have two “physician/lawyer”s or one specialized physician and one specialized lawyer in your town? Would your employer be better off with two “accountant/janitor”s or one of each specialization? (Which is by no means to say that it is bad to know something of other fields—quite the contrary. The point, cf. part I, is rather that depth should precede breadth—not the other way around, as is currently the case.)

As a further aside, the above issue with grades and degrees that lose the power to differentiate is likely part of a wider problem. I note e.g. that the U.S. SATs and other tests with a similar purpose (including the Swedish “Högskoleprovet”) often have problems with a gradual dumbing down and/or attempts to skew the results. For instance, every now and then Högskoleprovet is changed to “correct” the “problem” that men tend to score higher than women—without stopping to consider the possibility that this is not an effect of the test but of natural differences*. Unsurprisingly, such attempts tend to fail, unless they are willing to drop the ability to differentiate between those of greater and lesser suitability for studies (which is the actual purpose of the test). A possibly related issue is that the “verbal” part of the SATs are allegedly a better proxy for I.Q. than the “math” part—flying in the face of both common sense and practical experience. If true, the explanation is likely that this is an artifact caused by 1. the higher average and larger standard deviation of the math part, 2. the greater dumbing down of the same. For instance, it is far easier to get a perfect 800 on the math part, not to mention being among those who miss it only through sloppiness, and once there the test can no longer differentiate. However, the latest change (that I am aware of) might go in the other direction—through removing “too hard”** words, the difficulty of the verbal (!) part could drop, weakening the SATs ability to serve as an I.Q. proxy further, as well as reducing its discriminatory powers in general.

*This is the more absurd, because it is not necessary to consider men, in some sense, better for this to hold true. For instance, it could be that the better school grades of female high-school students simply implies that less of those who want to go to college have to take the test, thereby skewing the samples of test takers… As an example of where a naive approach to differences can lead: In a somewhat recent change, the math part was increased to favour women (!)—and it ended up favoring men. (A male advantage in math ability is very well established; however, the test makers reasoned that because women had better math grades in high school, women would have an advantage.)

**The rational appears to be to just test words that could reasonably be needed to understand college literature. While superficially reasonable sounding, this removes (above a certain cut-off) the implicit earlier check of how well-read and knowledgeable the students are. At the same time, it increases the risk of further dumbing-down of college literature and SAT in a vicious circle.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 19, 2017 at 12:43 am

A few thoughts on specialization and excellence (part I)

with 5 comments

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