Specialization and Liberal Education

David Brooks recently wrote in the NYT (won’t bother with a link, because it’s “Times Select”) about the difficulty of obtaining a true liberal education in most universities as currently structured, and suggested that students take more responsibility for their own learning…and offered some tangible suggestions for doing so. One problem Brooks identified as facing those seeking a liberal education is the high specialization that exists within academic disciplines today.

In a letter to the editor responding to the column (yesterday), someone defended specialization in academia, arguing that this specialization is beneficial for the same reasons that division of labor is effective in business.

Seems like it would be interesting to discuss whether this logic is valid.

As a thought starter: Division of labor within a business requires considerable planning effort to ensure that the multiple activities represent some kind of coherent flow. Mass production plants have industrial engineers, methods engineers, production planners, and others whose charter cuts across the specialized functions, and who often have almost absolute authority over the structure of the work. It’s not clear that such functions either exist or should exist in academia.

Also: In recent years, it’s been recognized that excess division of labor can have a real cost, particularly in terms of flexibility. The noted consultant Michael Hammer (creator of the term “business process reengineering”) has been a particular leader in identifying the need to focus on the gestalt of processes that flow across functions, not just on those individual functions.

So…What do we think about specialization in academia, particularly in the liberal arts? Has it gone too far? How valid is the letter writer’s analogy with the division of labor in business?

5 thoughts on “Specialization and Liberal Education”

  1. Specialization – both in research & teaching – has nurtured the opaque prose that is now the scholarly model. In the old days (my youth), critics were also decent stylists. This wasn’t just because they actually wanted to communicate, but also because many taught lower level courses (and sometimes even tech writing), so they valued clarity and were used to explaining ideas to non-specialists.

    Also, specialization means people accept the conventional wisdom of other area; they don’t feel in a position to challenge it (nor care to). Interpretations become both less broad & less deep, specialists argue over quite obscure and precious points with other specialists.

    (A few years ago, a grad student complained at MLA that he had been asked to teach a survey in Brit Lit that included the 18th century; his dissertation was on Freudian interps of specific works including ones from that period. He said that he couldn’t think of any other authors from that century; he thought the school should have been quite happy to let him teach Freudian interps to whatever he chose. A parent might well ask if they were getting good return for their tuition dollar if a teacher of Brit lit couldn’t name 7 or 8 writers from about any given century. I would. But his self-righteousness came from his belief that his specialization should be recognized & rewarded. He clearly believed he was, indeed, a better man than a generalist. The panel of newly hired faculty from major colleges (better than the one he hailed from) who were teaching at small schools told him to drag out a text, look over the authors, bull shit a bit with them over the phone & then spend the next months cramming from an undergrad survey text until he got to the school and started teaching. He seemed clearly offended.

  2. Specialization in much of the humanities strikes me as ridiculous, especially considering the arcane lengths a lot of this specialization go to. It makes perfect sense for, say, molecular biologists to have a high degree of specialization. The field is very difficult and it requires dedicated specialists working in narrow areas to discover new and useful knowledge. But nowhere near this kind of complexity and obscurity come any of the humanities. Much of this specialization is contrived, a glance at the absurd jargon in use in contemporary literature studies and philosophy confirms this.

  3. The points raised by both Ginny and Stevely are taken. Pretentiousness and appropriate division of labor are opposites, one hopes. But too often not among the Liberal Arts.

    People in the humanities ought to be especially cognoscent of the far-flung generality of their field. Perhaps the value of recognizing this lies outside the traditional academic domain. I’m thinking of the demand driven Master of Liberal Arts programs in the US, sometimes undergirded by undergrad humanities programs. (See http://www.aglsp.org/)

    Could this outsider movement hold lessons that traditional academe fails to see?

  4. A liberal arts education is not analogous to a business process. A liberal arts education is a product and should not be confused with the process of creating the product. The purpose of the division of labor in a business process is to reduce costs by improving productivity. It may be that it is more productive to have the teachers specialize in order to improve their productivity in teaching, but that is not the same thing as changing the content of the liberal arts education to match the specialization of the teachers. There is no value in building cars with no wheels on them simply because to do so would improve the efficiency of the assembly line.

    The problem with liberal arts education originates in a misconception among both teachers and students about what a liberal arts education is supposed to be. I remember having a knock-down, drag-out argument with a good friend at my undergraduate commencement 29 years ago about this. Many, and maybe even most, students think that the purpose of a liberal arts education is vocational training. Schools try to attract students by telling them how much more money they will make if they graduate from their program. If you believe that you are going to school in order to receive training to qualify you to work in a particular field, you will expect the training to be as focused, and specialized as necessary to that field. That was exactly how I felt when I was getting my MBA.

    However, a liberal arts education is not vocational training. Its purpose is not to train you to be a biologist, or a psychologist, or a programmer, or philosopher, or a historian. Its purpose is to teach you what it means to be a human being. You need to learn enough biology, psychology, computer skills, philosophy, history, art, literature, math, &c., &c., to be able to understand the nature of people. But you can’t sacrifice covering one aspect of humanity in order to have the time to get a more detailed understanding of some other aspect. You can’t ignore literature in order to spend more time on math, or vice versa. A properly educated student can always go back and read the footnotes on their own.

    By the way, business must be just as careful not to overvalue specialization. Eliyahu Goldratt made a career out of proving mathematically that optimizing one work center in a machine shop did not necessarily improve the throughput or efficiency of the shop as a whole. Systems theorists know that optimizing a component of a system does not necessarily improve the system. There is sometimes value in redundancy and versatility. New technology is letting business increase productivity without increasing specialization. For example, computer-controlled, multi-tool robots allow production runs of a single piece were the increased cost of the machine is offset by shorter lead times, reduced inventory carrying costs, and higher machine utilization rates. Likewise, new technology now allows publishers to have single-volume print runs.

    The mission determines the methods, not the other way around.

  5. Several issues here, which I’ll just touch on:

    a) Almost all education is joint production: producer and consumer produce the “product” together. And the “product” is not always what the professor or the student thinks it is.

    b) Academic specialization is about the production of research, not the production of an education. The two are linked, of course, but undergraduate education in particular is a different kind of enterprise than academic research and even graduate education.

    c) The defense of a classic liberal arts education is usually either something about participating in the “great debate” over eternal questions, or something about developing critical thinking and writing skills. Discussions of the “canon” have widened the literature which could be used for the former, and the latter may be done through a variety of means. All sides of this debate have something to learn from others.

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