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A Protest Against Specialization

Just yesterday (I refer to the song by Charles Aznavour “Hier Encore”), over four decades ago when I wasn’t yet an adult, I used to take long walks with my grandfather through the streets of Paris.  Three or four times during each walk, he would pause in front of a building and, with his walking stick, point.  “On May the Third, 1645, the Duke of Such-and-Such jumped out the back window as the Marquis of So-and-So walked in the front door.  The Duke broke his leg.  That broken leg changed the course of French history…” It wasn’t always about lovers sneaking out the back window (although there seemed to be a lot of that throughout French history): it was about conspirators meeting in the coal cellar, or a writer battling depression looking out his window for something with which to cling to life. And when he told the story of the Battle Vienna as if he had been there, you could see the Ottoman troops fleeing old King Sobieski’s mad charge.

My grandfather was not a historian.  He was a retired executive of a passenger and cargo shipping company.  During World War I, he had been an intelligence analysis officer and a liaison between French and English-speaking field officers.  During World War II, he was head of a Resistance cell in Normandy that helped downed English pilots and Jewish refugees get across the Channel to England; and, after he retired, he contributed articles to the multi-volume Encyclopédie Larousse–the French equivalent of Encyclopedia Britannica.  He also wrote several books on political philosophy and social justice.  

Try as I might, the above paragraph does not begin to describe “who” he was.  He was many things to many people; but, for the young man that I was, he became the inspiration of what I would like to be.  Not that I could ever hope to know as well, to understand as deeply, or to do as much as he had; but even as an adolescent I knew I would be content if I could claim that a little something of him survived in me.  Special as he was to me, he was not so much the exception of his generation, but much closer to the norm.  And so, today, I write this protest against specialization.

Bright as our students are, we do them a disservice by not expecting them to be encyclopedic, if not in the depth of their knowledge, at least in its scope.  We no longer ask them to learn a language foreign-to-them (the language they grew up with does not count), nor do we require them to know something of Plato or the Epic of Gilgamesh or the Mahabharata, The Mogul Empire, The Origin of the Species…the list of what we do not require them to know is much longer than what we do ask. Instead, we mandate four semesters of intensive writing and hope we have helped them become educated future citizens of the world.

True, the college composition courses E110 and the various CW2 courses begin to take them in something of the right direction; and, if structured in the right way, the remaining two “W” classes could take them further down the roads towards broadened horizons.  I suggest, however, that this happens in a haphazard way; the result of accident rather than design.

The specialization against which I protest is inherent to the structure of most modern universities: gone is the once-pervasive philosophy that knowledge can be its own intrinsic reward, that those impractical disciplines of Philosophy and Literature, History and Art, impractical as they are, are none the less essential to the achievement of a life well lived—a fully human life. Now, the conferral of a diploma is seen and marketed as a rite of passage on the way to jobs and a career.

Perhaps the structure we have at Queens College is as good as we are going to get, and perhaps I am foolish to think more could be done, more could be expected of our students.  I am not certain; but I would be interested to hear from you my colleagues in all the different disciplines: could we compile a list of all the quanta of knowledge to which we would like our students exposed?  What, in your estimation as an instructor in the discipline of X, is an essential subject or topic absent which a graduate of our institution would not be a well-educated Bachelor?

I cannot speak for my colleagues who also teach Composition and “W” classes; but, as for me, if you take the trouble to respond to my request, I promise you to learn as much about the subject as I can, and somehow incorporate in whatever way I can at least an introduction of it to my students.

By the way, of all the things my grandfather taught me, the one of which we were both proudest was that together we learned how to make our own bread.

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6 comments to A Protest Against Specialization

  • A colleague asked, “if people actually respond [to this post] … we will wind up with a set of gen ed outcomes (-ish?)”

    So I’ll add a couple of suggestions. In addition to learning how to make bread, students should know how to make beer (same process, actually) and how to make code. On the latter front, I recommend Nick Montfort’s recent volume: Exploratory Programming for the Arts and Humanities. Yves’ bio mentions 20 years as a computer consultant. Does this resonate at all? Or do you see your geek creds as irrelevant to your academic creds?

    • Chris,
      Thank you for your comments. In answer to your colleague’s question: I cannot speak for anyone else, I represent a constituency of one. But I welcome any any suggestions for a list of “Must Know Topics” and if I don’t know about them, I will learn or invite someone knowledgeable to lecture to my students. And I will be glad to compile the list and share it with whoever expresses interest in seeing it.
      In answer to your own suggestions: making beer is absolutely a historically and sociologically crucial skill. There has emerged a theory in archaeo-anthropology–the “Beer First Theory”–which posits that Beer, not Bread, was the first product of humankind after the switch from hunter-gatherer to domesticator of animals and crops. Beer had the added advantage of not spoiling as quickly or easily as bread. We should definitely teach something about beer-making and its contribution to human civilization, but legally it might be issue in NY State if the students aren’t 21. And having them make beer and not let them taste it seems particularly cruel and un-pedagogical.
      As for my 20 years in I.T., they entirely resonate, and permeate my teaching approaches. I don’t emphasize that part of my background because this generation has no need of me telling them computer skills are important: I am confident they have figured that out for themselves; what they don’t hear often enough is that the Arts and Humanities are essential to a life well lived, and critical for giving context to whatever field of specialization they choose. It is not an OR situation; it is all about AND.

  • I’m not so sure that particular “must know topics” are as important as the dispositions instilled in students when they’re engaged in deep study of an area of knowledge, any area. Our grads should be life-long learners, adaptive to the things they will face that we didn’t teach them about while they were in college. Learning a language you didn’t grow up with gets you out of your comfort zone, preparing you for the next time you face the unknown. Learning code does the same thing. (I haven’t studied beer- or bread-making, so I have no opinions there.)

  • Yves Cloarec

    Eva, Thank you for your comment. I completely agree that we should guide our students towards being lifelong learners; and I am not advocating that there should not be deeper study in one specific area of knowledge. Rather, I am hoping that we can expect both of our students: in depth study on the one hand and broadened horizons (whatever that might actually look like) on the other.
    I am convinced learning a language and learning code demand many of the same skill sets. In fact, I believe I was able to teach myself database management and the programing languages to create front ends for the clients because I already knew Creole, Spanish and French from childhood and studied English, ancient Greek and Latin in High School…. Once you know more than one language the next one is easier to learn. I found programming languages to be no different. And, as you said, learning a new language prepares the brain for facing new challenges.
    As for beer or bread making, I was not being literal: I see those as metaphors for not neglecting the basic crafts–the acts of creating with one’s hands–that once made us human and, along side a specialty and an intellectual curiosity about everything, ought to be part of a life fully lived.

  • Ray E. Skrabut

    Season 5, Episode 2 of Star Trek: The Next Generation is called “Darmok.” The captains of two starships attempt communication, often failing miserably.

    Yves, your example of the Epic of Gilgamesh brought this to mind. Captain Picard of the Enterprise relates part of the story as the other captain lies injured and close to death. Later, Picard rereads the Homeric Hymns, saying that (and I paraphrase here) familiarity with our own mythology could possibly help communicate with the alien race, since their language is based on their own heroes and their battles.

    Writing is communication, as we well know, and perhaps Homer, Plato, Shakespeare, and others, in small doses, like a vaccination, really *are* the key, as yourself and Eva astutely mention, towards making our students lifelong learners. It’s what I do in my Comparative Literature “W” courses.

  • Ray,
    Many thanks for that reminder. “Darmok” is one of my all-time favorite TV episodes. As I recall, the issue for the crew of the Enterprise is that the Tamarians speak solely in conceits, metaphors compressed into allusions (our students might say ‘memes’). The Tamarian phrase “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” is meaningless until Captain Picard translates it as “Gilgamesh and Enkidu at Uruk.” But even with this translation, the phrase might not say very much, unless one is familiar with the Epic of Gilgamesh.
    I entirely agree with the way you phrase it: vaccination doses of the “must know quanta of knowledge” are the way to boost the immune system into knowing how to respond to ignorance, prejudice and the thousand “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune…”
    Ultimately, is that not the true purpose of education–at least as much as preparing for a job?