Kids Too Specialized?

Heather Wilson notices a disturbing trend:

For most of the past 20 years I have served on selection committees for the Rhodes Scholarship. … one of the most prestigious honors that can be bestowed on young scholars. … I have … become increasingly concerned in recent years. … Even from America’s great liberal arts colleges, transcripts reflect an undergraduate specialization that would have been unthinkably narrow just a generation ago. As a result, high-achieving students seem less able to grapple with issues that require them to think across disciplines or reflect on difficult questions about what matters and why. …

An outstanding biochemistry major wants to be a doctor and supports the president’s health-care bill but doesn’t really know why. A student who started a chapter of Global Zero at his university hasn’t really thought about whether a world in which great powers have divested themselves of nuclear weapons would be more stable or less so, or whether nuclear deterrence can ever be moral. A young service academy cadet who is likely to be serving in a war zone within the year believes there are things worth dying for but doesn’t seem to have thought much about what is worth killing for. A student who wants to study comparative government doesn’t seem to know much about the important features and limitations of America’s Constitution. …

The trend is unmistakable. Our great universities … are producing top students who have given very little thought to matters beyond their impressive grasp of an intense area of study. … Our universities fail [students] and the nation … [by not] teaching them to think about what problems are important and why. (more)

My personal skill set tends in the direction Heather wishes would be more emphasized. So my status would rise if such skills were more highly valued and celebrated. Thus I’d like to believe that we are in fact doing our students and the nation a disservice by marginalizing such skills.

Unfortunately, I simply have little evidence with which to support such a judgment. Since I have little idea of the optimal level for such skills, the fact that we emphasize them less doesn’t tell me if we have fallen far below the optimal level, if we were once way above the optimal level, or if the optimal level has fallen with our falling emphasis. Just how many people should be thinking about what problems are important and why?

Alas, just because a question is interesting doesn’t mean we know how to answer it.

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  • http://bellisaurius.livejournal.com/ Bellisaurius

    “Unfortunately, I simply have little evidence with which to support such a judgment.”

    I like this addressing of the issue tremendously. It’s impossible at the moment to put one’s finger on the issue, but there’s an intuitive grasp that it feels wrong. There’s a hypothesis, but still enough waggle room that some data could be presented or the question could be re-asked in such a way that one’s opinion could be changed.

    That said, on this particular post’s topic, I agree with a certain direction of the comments posted in the article that discuss the “back in my day” mentality that she is presenting. A kid from the 60′s might have just as much difficulty answering the “what would you kill for?” or the “would the world be less stable without nukes?” questions. I mean, I’ve thought about both and I have workable answers, but I don’t think either of the current thoughts are too far apart from what my initial gut reactions were, really more like justifications after the fact (which in itself is an idea that I’ve had to spend time grappling being OK with).

    I guess, in sum I’d expect the students to have given their core beliefs a bit more thought, but the problem may not be that they haven’t had a broad enough set of topics in their education, but that they haven’t had a set of teachers who challenge them in what their beliefs may be. My guess is the reason many of us (including ms. wilson) have thought about these kind of things is because we’ve had to deal with people or writings where there are different opinions, or because we’re just that socratic by nature.

  • http://www.gwern.net/ gwern

    Here’s a thought. Are these broad questions increasing in number or decreasing in number or static?

    If they are either of the latter, then fewer undergraduates able to grapple about them may not be bad, since the population is growing so much. Per capita, the number of generalists can shrink but still be going up in absolute terms.

    Another thought. These questions tend to be very old. Old questions have been thought about by many people with many perspectives, and it’s unlikely you’ll make a new worthwhile contribution compared to thinking about new questions. So since these generalist questions seem to usually be very old and unrewarding, you would want most people to be focused on new questions.

    (I guess you would want as few people working on old questions as it takes to apply new observations and methods to the old questions, in the hope that the new observation/method might finally crack it.)

  • anon

    “An outstanding biochemistry major wants to be a doctor and supports the president’s health-care bill but doesn’t really know why. A student who started a chapter of Global Zero at his university hasn’t really thought about whether a world in which great powers have divested themselves of nuclear weapons would be more stable or less so, or whether nuclear deterrence can ever be moral. A young service academy cadet who is likely to be serving in a war zone within the year believes there are things worth dying for but doesn’t seem to have thought much about what is worth killing for. A student who wants to study comparative government doesn’t seem to know much about the important features and limitations of America’s Constitution. …”

    Why would this be an argument for less specialization rather than more? Perhaps what we need is fewer jacks-of-all-trades and more healthcare policy analysts, international relations experts, military ethicists and political scientists specializing in constitutional law.

    Yes, there are gains to be had from more interdisciplinary research. But interdisciplinary studies is also a specialized endeavor, which focuses on mediating and integrating berween researchers from multiple disciplines. More often than not, interdisciplinarity also ‘compounds’ the specialization problem by creating new fields such as bioinformatics or quantum information science.

  • http://silasx.blogspot.com Silas Barta

    From my perspective, there’s no mystery: If I do possess deeper understanding and critical thinking skills, how do I get the elite to notice me? They’re using the wrong filters to begin with!

    • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

      Silas is right. Some questions don’t have answers that can be given in a superficial sound bite. That students can’t give glib answers to complex questions seems like a good thing to me.

      A person trying to become educated should know their limits (kudos to Clint Eastwood). If you don’t know the answer, acknowledging you don’t know is better than to make up BS. It is a lot better than making up “facts” to fit the answer that you want to hear (SOP for many politicians).

  • http://hertzlinger.blogspot.com Joseph Hertzlinger

    It’s possible the students have thought about those questions but are afraid of giving the “wrong” answers.

  • http://www.uncrediblehallq.net/ Chris Hallquist

    I suspect Robin is right here – specialization is a good thing.

    This reminds me of a post did awhile back about normal people being boring. They have a little bit to say about a wide variety of topics, but no deep grasp of any one topic.

    Probably no amount of liberal arts education will substantially raise the proportion of students who come out able to have a truly informed opinion on a dozen different political issues.

    Also probably the best we can hope for, as far as an informed citizenry, is to produce students who understand the parts of economics that economists are pretty sure of, and teach the virtues of agnosticism in areas they are ignorant of.

    • http://silasx.blogspot.com Silas Barta

      The problem is the *kind* of knowledge. Specialized knowledge is fine, as long as it’s connected to a deep understanding of where it fits in with the rest of our knowledge so that you can know how it does or does not apply to other domains.

  • Vladimir

    One of my pet hypotheses is that in recent years the internet has been lowering the status of erudition and broad non-specialist knowledge, for two reasons. First, erudite and broadly read people were useful as, so to speak, “search engines” for connecting elusive clues in research, a role that has been made obsolete by Google. Second, in the past erudition signaled a certain level of conscientiousness and scholarly aptitude, because it could be acquired only by lots of reading of thick books. Nowadays however it’s more apt to signal that one has the habit of procrastination by reading Wikipedia.

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  • http:/juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com Stephen R. Diamond

    “So my status would rise if such skills were more highly valued and celebrated.”

    In far mode, maybe. The near-mode (or nearer-mode) prediction is that if generalists matriculated in greater numbers, the supply of generalists services rises, with consequences tedious to mention.

  • Max M

    It sounds to me that students still have strong opinions on these questions, but these opinions haven’t gone through many computational cycles in their brains. The “girl who supports obamacare” probably supports it as strongly or more so than someone who has given a great deal of thought to the issue.

    Sounds like we should be asking to what degree their confidence and “willingness to act” on or impose their opinions on others has or has not changed during that same time.

    If their beliefs on these topics aren’t as well thought out but they also aren’t as fervently imposed on the rest of us, then maybe this is a good trend.

  • http://www.cygne-gris.blogspot.com Simon Grey

    If there is increasing specialization, it’s likely due to a shift in demand. The way I see it, at least as a student, is that few students are concerned about becoming educated. Most are focused on getting a job. Jobs require specialization, students want jobs, so universities give students degrees that demonstrate specialization. thus, the shift shouldn’t be that surprising.

  • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

    What about those who fervently oppose Obamacare for reasons that are factually incorrect? For example the non existent “death panels”, or the grossly distorted cost figures the GOP cooked up? I appreciate that those people holding those beliefs fervently are not kids but adults (supposedly).

  • http://annasalamon.com Anna Salamon

    If more drivers of tech progress become competent generalists, there’s a greater chance that the drivers of tech will be able to see their potential impacts and make reasoned decisions about which directions to take things in. Since tech trajectories have huge impacts on global welfare, and potentially pose huge risks, it might be worth investing in “generalist scientists / tech investors / etc.” who can see what they’re doing, rather than in an “ant colony” model of science, in which development is driven almost entirely by specialists thinking within a narrow discipline.

    (Nick Bostrom’s article http://www.nickbostrom.com/revolutions.pdf makes some good points here, if anyone hasn’t read it.)

    • http://www.gwern.net/ gwern

      Existing generalist policy-makers are already biased against new technologies (one argument goes); if their abilities are increased and they can see further and in more detail, wouldn’t that increase their bias against technological development?

      If you only see 1 year ahead, then a small net negative may not be worth banning; but if you see ahead a century, then the net negative starts to look very dangerous indeed…

  • Buck Farmer

    Intellectual imperialism is my favored modus operandi–by this I mean taking a paradigm, idea, or concept from one domain of human experience and seeing how far one can run with it in many other domains. Mainly, I enjoy the discovery of the paradigm and the joyful sensation of not just seeing a new world unmasked, but living in that world. It is exotic travel on the cheap.

    Based on Robin’s proclivity towards paradigm overreach (near vs. far color-coding anyone?) I suspect he would decry less specialization of knowledge than specialization of curiousity.

    I love engaging with someone who has (1) deep domain knowledge AND (2) the comfort and interest to pull lessons from that domain into other areas.

    Commenters above have done a great job of addressing the limitations of comparing present and past students’ answers to these ancient questions.

  • http://zatavu.blogspot.com Troy Camplin

    There is the old chestnut about a specialist being someone who knows more and more about less and less until he knows absolutely everything about nothing. I have met these people. They are very difficult to have a conversation with outside of their narrow interests. And they cannot relate those narrow interests to much of anything.

    Of course, I suppose I am biased, being an interdisciplinary scholar (I even titled my blog “Interdisciplinary World”). In my literary studies, I use evolutionary theory and Austrian economics (a pair of interests which resulted in two other blogs, “Evolution and Literature” and “Austrian Economics and Literature”). Yet, at the same time, I cannot imagine that one can understand some pretty important problems from only a narrow disciplinary focus. Such is necessary for the increase in knowledge one gains from spcialization, but at the same time, you have to have those who understand the whole picture. Unfortunately, when faced with someone who does understand the big picture and engages in interdicsiplinary integration, the response is typically, “I’m not sure what exactly it is that you do.” Thus, the narrowness continues.

  • stephen

    If higher-ed is becoming more near-mode oriented this should feel problematic to those in academia who view their role in far-mode.

  • CaptBackslap

    Keep in mind here that this is the same Heather Wilson from the DOJ scandal a few years ago. Her personal definition of leadership is apparently that you don’t just ask a U.S. Attorney to move a trial to help you get re-elected, you get him fired when he refuses. Forgive me if I refrain from accepting her moral credibility here.

  • richard silliker

    Ain’t got an answer to the question. However, it appears Mrs. Wilson shares the same limitations as the Rhode Scholar applicantes.

    • richard silliker

      read applicants

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    I think relatively few, but super highly qualified people should exert much effort thinking about the big problems. We probably need more, not less specialization among the nation’s top students.

    But being of renaissance capability and thinking about big problems are both high status (hello Rhodes Scholarship committee) so more people want to do those things than would be optimal.

    That’s my intuitive take on it.

    By the way, I thought her examples sucked. Lots of relative dummies can meet her described intellectual capacity hurdles, which makes it seem like a pander to a broader audience to me. Prof. Hanson, I feel like I’ve noticed you be a sucker for this type of stuff in your blog before -complaints by academic about student deficiencies or misguided efforts, where the complaints seem off-base without empirical grounding.

  • Jordan

    I’m more concerned about the fact that specialization is in the wrong areas: my cousin wants to become a doctor, and his counselors and other sources seem to be reflecting a very recent trend where community service holds more weight than extra-curricular medicine-related activities. He’s hedging his bets by working in a research lab as well as being community manager for an activist organization whose beliefs he profoundly disagrees with, but is widely supported by others in academia.

    It’s tragic to hear that medical study is probably not the best way to ensure that one becomes a medical doctor.