Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Argument Against Specialization

In a recent article in the New York Times, Adam Davidson warns that in our current economic climate, the competition for decent paying jobs will become more intense than ever, not only for blue collar workers, but also for many college graduates: 

Until now, a B.A. in any subject was a near-guarantee of at least middle-class wages.  But today, a quarter of college graduates make less than the typical worker without a bachelor’s degree….[A] college degree [therefore] is no longer the guarantor of a good job.  While graduates from top universities are still likely to get a good job no matter what their major is…graduates from less-exulted schools are going to be judged on what they know.  To compete for jobs on a national level, they should be armed with skills that emerging industries need, whether technical…or not.

Davidson goes on to say that those who earn non-specialized degrees at universities—think English, history, and philosophy majors—will ultimately be vying with one another for the same sorts of low-paying, low-level management or retail jobs that are unlikely to pay them enough to live as well as their parents did.  The implication here is that those students who foolishly decide to pursue humanities degrees at most American colleges and universities are basically wasting their tuition dollars by not choosing majors that would enable them to become more economically competitive. 

Unfortunately, I think that Davidson is correct in his assessment of the prospects for the average student with a humanities degree.  But the reason for this is lies in the erroneous perception that workers today need highly specialized skills in order to succeed in most fields. 

Until quite recently, one could graduate with a degree in classics or English literature, for example, and do quite well in any number of fields—business, law, entertainment, government, medicine, etc.  A traditional liberal arts degree from a respectable college assured employers that college graduates had the kinds of oral and written communications and  critical thinking skills, and cognitive flexibility to make a valuable contribution to just about any branch of industry.  That’s why—up until recently at least—you could find liberal arts majors running huge multinational companies and no one would think twice about it.  Today, because of hyper-specialization both in higher education as well as in most industries, that is much less likely to happen.

And that’s a shame too, because I believe that we are already beginning to see the limitations and liabilities of having hyper-specialized individuals in positions of authority in business and government.  It was, in fact, the most specialized sorts of individuals who were absolutely certain, based upon the most sophisticated technological evidence, that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq—the argument for a war that has costs tens of thousands of lives and billions of dollars.  It was another specialized technocrat, Donald Rumsfeld, who assured us—again incorrectly—that such a war could be won with limited costs and casualties.  And it was a group of the most hyper-specialized men and women imaginable—those who had the kinds of skill sets needed to understand how derivatives worked—who nearly brought down the entire U.S. economy in 2008.  The examples go on and on.

In The Republic, the philosopher Plato argued that true civilizations can only occur when you have some degree of specialization—different people becoming proficient in various skills and sharing or trading the fruits of their expertise.  This leads to the creation of wealth and the creature comforts that all of us have come to expect in advanced societies.

But Plato also believed that to create a just, orderly, and harmonious society you needed to have individuals leading it who had a broad enough training in all the arts and sciences—and especially philosophy—to know and do the Good.  In other words, Plato thought it was fine and dandy for low level business people to be specialists, but a political society could only work properly if it was led by people with the kind of expansive moral vision and depth of understanding that comes from having what is essentially a humanities background. 

I certainly think that we’d be better off as a society if our elected officials were people who had read Cicero and Thomas Moore rather than sterile law texts; if our top educators spent their time absorbed in reading Jane Austen and Edward Gibbons rather than combing through data bases in search of the latest shallow ideas of whatever educational theorist happens to be in vogue at the time; and if our business leaders were men and women who were as interested in picking up a volume of Wordsworth’s poetry as the latest issue of the Wall Street Journal.  Could there be any doubt that we’d be in a completely different place—and arguably a much better place—right now as a nation? 

Unfortunately, there’s no going back to the kind of education that produced some of the greatest leaders of the 20th century—Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill, among others.  The genie of hyper-specialization is already out of the bottle and majors in the humanities are already on their last legs. 

But perhaps a useful compromise could occur.  If we have to have people who specialize in business, law, medicine, or computer science, couldn’t we also work out a way to ensure that they also have a thorough grounding in those arts and sciences that can free their minds from the narrowness and shortsightedness of their specialized training?  I’m talking, of cause, about a training in the liberal arts and sciences—those disciplines that are said to make human beings truly free (liber).   Counterbalancing Accounting 1 with Shakespeare and Classical Political Theory, for example, might just provide future movers and shakers in the business world with a humanizing influence that may very well prevent them from the sort of fixation on the bottom line that has led American business leaders into so much trouble in recent years.

To accomplish this goal, it will either mean reducing the total number of credits that students take in their specialized majors in order to allow for either a much heftier dose of humanities classes and perhaps even a second major in a humanities discipline.   I have absolutely no doubts that if we did this we still could provide a very fine vocational training for all students, but we would also be ensuring that these students have the kind of expansive moral vision that is needed as we lurch forward into the 21st century.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the excellent article. In eleven years of education, I took almost no humanities classes, and the lack has encumbered me throughout my life. Not having the means to express myself or to the ability to reason about fundamental values was a life sentence to confusion and superficiality. Now, in my late forties, I'm finally taking some humanities classes to remedy the defects in my education. The fact that humanistically trained students are unable to find jobs is an indictment of the economic structure of today, in which jobs serve capital rather than the community. In fact, a humanistically trained student probably shouldn't accept a job serving corporations whose interests are antithetical to all genuinely human values. The call of Christianity to "sell all thou hast and follow me" or of Buddhism to the life of homelessness and begging, begins to seem more and more appealing a world where work has lost its meaning as service to the community. If the economic leaders of today show no signs of humanity, perhaps we should stop following them, and choose our actions based entirely on love for our fellow men, even if we have to beg and live in the streets as a result.