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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