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Adventures in Academia: The Dangers of (Over)Specialization

This column was originally published on Jul. 10, 2009.

Choosing a major used to be a relatively simple proposition. In the 12th century, the University of Paris had four faculties– law, medicine, arts and theology. They must have done something right, as these are the same disciplines that underlie much of Stanford’s organization (with a couple of additions over the years).

Those four original subjects lasted for centuries, gradually expanding as new forms of scholarship emerged, such as the engineering fields and the social sciences. The modern era of globalization and specialization, however, has changed this dynamic. Universities are founding disciplines and programs with remarkable alacrity. What was once a trickle of new disciplines has turned into a flood. Some universities in the United States now actively advertise hundreds of majors, and Stanford has crept past three digits between undergraduate and graduate programs.

This reflects a broad trend at Stanford and in American society over the past several decades– the forceful push toward greater levels of specialization. No undergraduate would be foolish to gain a broad education when tightly-defined specialties are the best economically. Or so the conventional wisdom used to say.

Today, however, the trend is not further disintegration of the disciplines into smaller pockets, but rather the reintegration of disciplines into larger areas of knowledge. Neuroeconomics, for example, is not a new discipline, but a unifying one of two social sciences. The people who will make the largest impact in these fields are not the ones who are trapped within one area, but those who can see the connections between multiple paradigms.

As students, we have the biggest advantage in this coming change.  We have the tabula rasa necessary to understand these changes, but we need to rethink how we choose our classes and conceive our academic programs to be truly successful.  We do not need to settle for one paradigm; we need to demand to see as many of them as possible.

First, let me be clear: some level of specialization is good. I am reminded of the adage, “When you are one in a million in China, there are a thousand people just like you.” But choosing a single class in every department is not a thoughtful plan.  A well-defined foundation is a necessary first step.

The danger of specialization, then, is going too far. There is a necessary opportunity cost made when choosing classes or reading a book. The more specialized one becomes in an area, the less time there is to develop connections with other disciplines. Without those other connections, however, it is difficult to channel ideas to others with slightly different specialties. Overlap is necessary for even basic communication– just place a theoretical math major and an art history major into the same room and have them talk about their work. Does one understand the other clearly? Probably not.

In some respects, we will all be specialists– it’s the natural order of higher education. But the world also demands what Thomas L. Friedman calls “the Great Synthesizers,” people who specialize in interacting between disciplines and ideas. Communicating complex ideas that incorporate multiple bodies of knowledge is the skill that graduates and students need to have today.

Paul Krugman won the Nobel Prize in economics last year–  the highest award in that field. At the same time, he discusses economics and politics in his column with The New York Times. He expanded the theoretical horizons of his own discipline, but he can also communicate those ideas at a wide range of levels. His writings also go beyond economics, freely connecting his work with that of others.

It is not just individuals who are changing, but whole areas as well. On medicine, Voltaire wrote, “Doctors are men who prescribe medicines of which they know little, to cure diseases of which they know less, in human beings of whom they know nothing.” Our knowledge increased over the last few centuries, but enter any hospital, and such words are likely still spoken by patients.

More than any other area, medicine has radiated out to connect with the sciences, social sciences and engineering disciplines. Connecting the basic sciences with medicine was given the particularly apt term “translational medicine,” and the concept now forms a foundation of many medical schools, including Stanford’s Medical School. Medicine can no longer be just about biology, but instead must create a whole web of connections with fields across the University.

In the final analysis, balance is key. There is a risk of being both too general and too specialized. Neither result is desirable. Thankfully, Stanford is a particularly strong school to get an interdisciplinary education. As students, our responsibility is to realize these nascent connections. That adaptability will be particularly beneficial in a world that seems to change by the second.

Receiving the broadest undergraduate education possible is the best way to make an impact on the world. Consider it the liberal arts of the 21st century: engineering, sciences, social sciences and humanities working together in one grand web of knowledge, each informing the others.

And as each field begins to reform, we may once again return to a smaller course bulletin. Freely quoting Bill Gates, four disciplines should be enough for anybody.

Danny has been affected by the Busyness syndrome and was unable to write a column today. Contact Danny Crichton at dancric@stanford.edu.

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