Sunday, January 31, 2016

An Indictment against Well-Roundedness

It's going to be a fun semester, in large part because a student has appeared on my roster who was with me before. This young man tends to be a good questioner, usually seeking to clarify learning. Sometimes it's a check on information. Other times it's more philosophical.

And that's what he did Friday.

I'm working my way through an introductory lesson on economic thinking, a lesson that involves talking about how economists prize specialization over generalization. The basic idea is that we are richer, and society is richer, if we specialize in something that suits our talents rather than try to be jacks-of-all-trades. Makes sense, right.

Then came the question: So is being well-rounded not all it's cracked up to be.

Great question, especially given the student's status as a 12th grader (in the throes of the college admission process and sitting at the end of a public school odyssey in which we praise students who are well-rounded).

My initial answer to him was honest, but could have gone deeper. I told him that a) I'm not an economist, that b) this sort of topic is what prevents me from loving economics, and c) what is economically true doesn't necessarily reflect what I admire in others or try to instill in my students or children.

I wish I had given the answer a bit more thought, because it seemed like I was preaching a discipline much at odds with what the student and his peers had been learning over the years. Here's what I wish I had thought to say.

At some point, in life, it's necessary for us to specialize. This time comes as we approach the point in our life where our efforts translate into something with a market value. In my early 20s, I entered that phase when I became a specialist in teaching Social Studies to adolescents. As I've advanced in my career, I've become more and more a specialist rather than a generalist. At different points we all become specialists as our particular skills and opportunities create value. That time comes early for some, say, the Division-I college athlete on scholarship, and later for others, like those who take a longer pathway toward graduation.

But until that point in time when one must specialize, the well-roundedness pays off. I'm the product of a liberal arts education who believes strongly in that approach. The well-rounded, and general, education one gets and the well-rounded experience one gets by dabbling in the teen years allows you to find that pathway that's likeliest to lead to the specialization that brings value.

So, I guess, we're not perpetuating a fraud as teachers and parents.

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