Modern education and Specialization…a digression

Among the chief marks by which the “modern school” distinguishes itself from the “classical school” is its adherence to the educational doctrine that proposes specialization as a virtue.

The doctrine of “specialization” asserts that every student ought to become a specialist, and in so doing the student is likely to become successful precisely because of his special excellence in this or that specific area. Success is alluring and therefore consequently, so is specialization!

The advantages of becoming a specialist are easy to argue. In completing any kind of practical task, from building a house, to the production of automobiles, to the building of a pyramid, the division of labor brings about a product more efficiently.

Specialization, of course, requires a whole system of “electives.” Electives, in turn, are courses taught by specialists who themselves have excelled in the particular subject which they teach. These teachers are therefore very qualified to teach this or that course because they have specialized themselves in it for as long as they can remember.

The doctrine of specialization ultimately requires the individual student (assuming, of course, some direction from parents, friends, and other advisers) to “elect” for himself what courses he would like to take. Each student will most likely guide his own intellectual formation by what he feels to be his own talent and interest. Indeed, it would be odd to elect to study something which one might feel he has no special interest or talent!

In effect specialization requires the student to become his own teacher insofar as he becomes the primary mover in his own intellectual formation. Specialization ultimately leads to a greater multiplicity of teachers. This teacher specializes in physics, that one in Chemistry and another in Biology. This teacher specializes in English Literature that one in American History. This teacher specializes in Latin, that one in Spanish (or Mandarin Chinese!).

The ideal school would of course be one that would employ myriad specialists in order to meet the myriad special interests of its students. And of course one would expect an ever increasing diversification of specialties- and ever expanding world of special interests. For who could possibly be a specialist in such a large field as English literature or Ancient civilizations when any one civilization or genre in literature might all by itself consume a lifetime to master?

I suppose this must be obvious to anyone who has paid a visit to the doctor. My father is a physician, and when people ask me what kind of physician he is, I say “a general practitioner.” But when is the last time you saw a GP? Maybe I am wrong, but I think the era of general practitioners is now either gone or in its last days. Classical education proposes a model that is almost diametrically opposed to specialization.

Classical education proposes that the end of education and all intellectual formation is something called “wisdom.” It proposes that those who wish to pursue wisdom must pursue knowledge in every major field AND, moreover, reach a certain level of mastery in each. Those who wish to become wise must become wise in mathematics and natural philosophy and the three arts of the Trivium as well as the four arts of the Quadrivium.

Those who wish to become wise consequently will have to master language and logic. It also proposes that the student must be proficient in history and poetry. Classical education proposes that those who wish to become wise must love beauty. Therefore they must love and pursue the fine arts. They also must ultimately obtain some level of mastery of moral philosophy as well as a thorough education in Theology.

Classical education proposes that no one of these subjects is able to be mastered apart from mastery in the others. It proposes that truth is connected and that the human mind is made to know all things. Classical education proposes that although a student might have specific interests, he ought to yield his judgment and personal desires to those of a teacher who is wiser than he. Classical education proposes that a student ought to subject himself as a disciple to a teacher and, if necessary, study the very things which might precisely not interest him!

This is not to say that specialization is an evil. But rather that specialization is something that is suited for those who are not specifically pursuing wisdom. For example, suppose one is attempting to support a family? Suppose someone is attempting to learn a marketable trade? Becoming a specialist might be imperative! On the other hand specialization has its own dangers.

The most obvious danger is that the specialist by definition narrows his mind according to his specialty and finds himself unable to speak with anything but mock confidence about things beyond his specialty. A second danger of specialization is that one must take particular care not to specialize in something that might become obsolete- or perhaps become undesirable should the market for it depend on current fashions.  For example when I was in school Spanish and French teachers seemed to be quite secure in their jobs, whereas these days one might be more secure as a teacher of Chinese. A third danger of specialization is that it is not by specialization that one becomes a good leader. My guess is that most CEOs have something significantly beyond specialization in their educational background in virtue of which they now occupy the corner office. Every now and then the Wall Street Journal publishes an article making this point. But for everything there is a proper time Рand if we are to propose the pursuit of wisdom to our students, then let them undertake that pursuit first and then, AFTERWARDS, let them pursue a specialty.

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About marklangley

Academic Dean at The Lyceum (a school he founded in 2003, see theLyceum.org) Mark loves sacred music and Gregorian Chant and singing with his lovely wife, Stephanie, and their twelve children.
This entry was posted in classical education, education, Seven Fine Arts and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Modern education and Specialization…a digression

  1. Pingback: Concrete Thoughts | Classical Catholic Education

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