Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Our not-that-superficial scholars

Because I have sometimes written blog posts about the manners and mores of my generation, Pnin sent me an editorial titled "Our superficial scholars" by former Congresswoman and ex-Rhodes Scholar Heather Wilson. In it. Wilson laments the over-specialization and excessive pre-professionalization of today's college curricula. She seems to base her indictment on her interviews with Rhodes Scholar candidates. This may not be the best pool of evidence; Rhodes Scholarship interviews are high-pressure situations (duh), and it's natural for candidates to try to play to their strengths. There are few settings in which it is a worse idea to shoot one's mouth about topics about which one knows little. I recommend happy hours instead.

Of the examples of alleged hyper-specialization that Wilson gives, two don't actually look much like examples of hyper-specialization. Take the student who started a chapter of Ground Zero on campus, an organization that advocates the elimination of nuclear weapons, yet "hasn't really thought about whether a world in which great powers have divested themselves of nuclear weapons would be more stable or less so, or whether nuclear deterrence can ever be moral." There, the problem seems to be that the student hasn't thought about basic objections to a cause that's important to her. (It's possible that Wilson's point is that the student is so devoted to her academic work that she hadn't any time to reflect on her extracurricular activities -- even one that was important enough to her that she was willing to undertake the hard work involved with starting a club. That seems unlikely, though.) The same thing seems true for the young service academy cadet. That person's weakness seems to be that she's thought too little about basic concerns about her profession, not that she is overly pre-professional or too narrowly specialized.

Her other two examples are trickier. To start with the aspiring comparative government scholar -- yes, it is probably good that she know more about the American constitution, but I'm not really sure it's necessary. And as for the biochemist, I understand completely why an aspiring biochemist might not want to say much about the PPACA. It was a thousand-plus page of highly complex legislation that was confusing even to experts. Nancy Pelosi's much-ballyhooed "We need to pass the health care bill so that you can find out what's in it" underscored the legislation's inscrutability. It was also of course deeply politically controversial. There's no reason why an aspiring biochemist, whose real interests lie elsewhere, should be expected to have any special insight into this thicket. I can understand entirely the decision to say, "You know, I'm inclined to support it, but it's not really my area of expertise. Let me tell you about X part of my research."

Indeed, there is a real danger of underspecialization -- thinking that one knows more than one does about a complex topic. Wilson's biochemist example suggests that she may be too inclined to risk underspecialization for my taste.

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