Everywhere we turn today we see specialization. The most respected and well paid doctors and
dentists are often those who perform just a few procedures. Many attorneys cover just one area of
law. Even kids are specializing in how
they play! With the spread of “travel
teams” whose seasons are often more
than six months per year, young athletes, starting at the age of 8 or so, are
now forced to choose one or two sports at the expense of all others.
Specialization produces excellencebut only within a
narrow range of endeavor. We have
become a society where even the narrowest of activities is treated as a sport
with its own heroes. Repetition and
mastery of a very specific activity is now the model of stardom. But even Adam Smith, the famous economist
who advocated the division of labor in society, admitted that the system had a
The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few
simple operations has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise
his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never
occur. He naturally loses, therefore,
the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it
is possible for a human creature to become.
(Adam Smith, The Wealth of
Nations, 1776, Book 5, Part III, Chapter II)
Smith never solved this riddle: How to get all the
material advantages of specialization while avoiding its intellectual
pitfalls? But it’s clear that he saw
educational reform as the best optionhis critique of the division of labor is
located in a discussion of educational reform.
Today even college education, which used to aim to produce
versatile professionals, is specialized.
This has been the case for a long time; it has been a major social trend
since the end of World War II. The
expansion of the American university system, and more precisely, the growth of
graduate certification, is a major factor here.
Consider a B.A. student who shows promise in historical
studies. The student can choose not to
specialize at the B.A. level but will probably opt to write a B.A. thesis on a
pretty focused subject, simply because a thesis is expected of those who apply
to graduate school.
When the student moves on to the M.A. level, the student
will now be required to declare a specialty, such as modern Britain. Finally, for the Ph.D. the student must
produce a very long dissertation on a specific topic within the specialty:
charity groups in early Victorian England.
At this stage, generalizing and synthesizing count for little. Showing complete mastery of the particular
topic is everything.
Ironically, as the student advances through the degree
system, he or she learns more and more about less and less.
The same is often true in the technical fields. Many students now specialize in computer
science and acquire no basic knowledge of engineering or other fields. That might be okay if the field of computer
science did not in turn break down into specialties, such as cyber security,
information retrieval, and so forth.
What are the costs of this specialization? One cost is that the areas of learning that
we call “disciplines” are now exciting only to those inside of them; often,
they even fail to inspire insiders for their whole career. The massive
expansion of universities in recent decades has made it possible to produce
hundreds of experts on Victorian England.
They can now hold their own conferences and sustain their own journals. But who benefits and who cares? Even the specialists are suffering from
doubts about who their audience is and what their role in society as a whole
is. A tone of self-abnegation and
cynicism is palpable among many academics today.
Another cost is that students rarely encounter university
teachers who think across disciplines or pose vital problems that cut through
multiple fields. As a result, the
students are often bored and stifled.
They feel they are being tested on their disciplinary knowledge and not
on their capacity to assemble the building blocks of knowledge in a creative
The biggest cost is the risk that we will not have
individuals capable of rising to the pressing needs of our time. In “Interdisciplinary Problem-Based
Learning: An Alternative to Traditional Majors and Minors,” Robert J. Sternberg
of Tufts University identifies four such needs:
Sternberg adds: “These four major problems, in common with
virtually all problems facing the world, can be solved only through
multidisciplinary thinking. They very well could form the bases for
problem-based majors and minors in university settings.” (Published in Liberal
Education, Winter, 2008, vol. 94, no. 1)
(1) finding a way to manageor ideally eradicate
epidemics (e.g., AIDS, SARS, perhaps avian flu); (2) achieving ways to manage
or eliminate terrorism and terrorist attacks; (3) finding ways to combat global
warming and related changes in the atmosphere before it is too late to keep the
earth habitable to humans; and (4) developing positive, effective, ethical
leaders who have at heart the best interests of all their stakeholders, rather
than primarily their own interests or those of groups to which they feel they
owe allegiance as a result of family, tribal, political party, economic, or
Sternberg describes a new initiative at Tufts to encourage
students to combine diverse disciplines into specially crafted majors. However, right here at UMass Amherst, we
have had the kind of program he describes since the 1970s. The Bachelor’s Degree With An Individual
Concentration (BDIC) is a program in which students invent their own
The student must draw on at least three disciplines and
must envision ways of applying the special major in his or her future
career. Examples of such majors are:
“Economics and Legal Studies,” “Marketing, Communication, and Graphic Design,”
“Organizational Development,” “International Peace Studies,” “Computer
Applications in Finance and Economics,” “Film and Women’s Studies,” “Community
Health Education,” and “Arts Administration.”
The students are energized by the fact that they construct
a unique and interdisciplinary curriculum.
One student wrote in her senior summary: “I can say that I truly enjoyed
what I studied in college. After all,
I’m the one who created it.” Instead of being tested on their mastery of
a pre-existing discipline, the students get credit for being inventive. Many BDIC alumni have gone on to become
versatile and thoughtful leaders in fields related to their specially designed
Fortunately, there is a growing trend among colleges and
universities to offer programs like BDIC.
The University of Connecticut was one of the first to follow the lead of
UMass by establishing an Individualized Major Program in 1974. More such programs have been founded in
recent years in response to the widespread disenchantment with conventional
These programs are not perfect. But they provide a partial alternative to the problem of
specialization in modern society. Today
everyone has a responsibility to ask themselves whether they are reaching as
high and wide as they could in their education and careers. Educators in particular need to challenge
themselves. We need more academic
degrees that produce a versatile problem-solving competence, and fewer degrees
that merely attest to specialized expertise.
Or maybe we need fewer academic degrees, period. A greater willingness among university
administrators to hire persons who have been successful in real life
activities, whether or not they have doctoral degrees would certainly
invigorate the academy. Our future may
well depend on having more people who are less educated involved in the
instruction of our youth.
--Daniel Gordon is professor of history and Interim Director
of BDIC at UMass Amherst.