Last night, Professor James Wilkinson, Director of the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard University, delivered the annual Menzies Oration on Higher Education at the University of Melbourne. He made a number of points about the need for broad-ranging education to equip students for lives in a flexible world in which they may reshape their careers on a number of occasions. His metaphor for the value of the generalist degree appealed to me:
But let us nonetheless start with content.Here we may distinguish between two traditional views of the proper undergraduate curriculum, one stressing the development of marketable skills, the other the development of broader capacities of critical thinking or character development. We might call the champions of the former the specialists, and those defending the latter the generalists. Specialist education is advocated on the grounds of practicality, as determined by the marketplace, in that it fits graduates for immediate employment. From thepoint of view of society or the marketplace, the resources invested in such a degree are justified by its utility to the nations economy. Those in the opposite camp feel that non-specialist education is good for something that extends beyond, or above, a purely professional degree on various groundsethical, esthetic, and politicalthat are harder to define. John Henry Newman is perhaps the best-known spokesman for the generalists, and in fact I note that his name has been mentioned at some point in most of the previous Menzies Orations that I have had the pleasure to read in preparation for my own. So let me observe this local custom by quoting Newman at the outset: There is a Knowledge, he wrote in 1852, which is desirable, though nothing come of it, as being of itself a treasure, and a sufficient remuneration of years of labor.This is an example of the extreme generalist position, in which knowledge (a word that Newman capitalizes) constitutes its own end. A more moderate form of generalism, to which I myself subscribe, would argue for its practical uses as well.
All curricula can be said to have a shape. Specialized higher education, to my mind, resembles an Egyptian obelisk, attaining an impressive height at the expense of a narrow base. By thus trading height for breadth, the specialized course of study promotes rapid advancement in a particular realm, but its narrow base means that it can easily topple when exposed to the shifts and subsidence of technological change. A generalist education, on the other hand, resembles an Egyptian pyramid, with a broad base tapering toward a narrower summit. Only when that broad base is in place are progressively narrower masonry courses added on; if the particular summit requires alteration at some point in the future, the base is still there to support another one.
Pyramids, after all, have lasted the tests of time far longer than obelisks. You can download the rest of James Wilkinson’s talk here.