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?