Should You Be a Well-Rounded Student, or a Highly-Focused Specialist?

At my old high school it was always stressed to us that our goal should be to become an “all-round man”. (It’s an all male school). Even today this is a kind of tag line for Scots College and many high schools around the world. “Students at the College”, the website says, “are provided with opportunities in many areas to develop their potential in the areas of academia, sport, culture, service and spirituality.” The “all-round” person excels at all these things. They are the mythical “renaissance” person, the generalist, the jack-of-all-trades, someone who can speak on any subject, a person on whom nothing is ever lost.

At university the goal is the opposite. We are told that we need to become exceptional at something—that we need to focus on our major, get a paper published, get an internship in the field, read all the “literature” on the topic, write our thesis on an even narrower sub-topic. At a liberal arts college we’re encouraged to take classes outside that area, but even then we’re told to draw links back to see how those other fields can inform our area of expertise. At university the model is the distinguished professor—someone who is a recognized international expert in their field, who knows everything there is to be known about their area. The all-rounder is here viewed as the dilettante, the dabbler, someone who has no idea what they want to do with their life and so is delaying the choice. At full research universities rather than liberal arts colleges the model of the expert is even stronger.

If the goal of our education is to become the ideal that the educational institution (and by extension society) holds up, how does it make sense to have two radically opposed ideals at two stages of our education? Which should we become: the generalist or the specialist? Which is better?

The decision relates not just to the kind of student we are or the career we hope to have, but rather what kind of person we are—what we think about and read on, what we can speak about and who we associate with.

     The Origins of the Two Ideals

The two models each have long histories.

The “all-round” ideal that most high schools still follow is derived from the Greek tradition, where the liberal arts model of education was developed and practiced (liberal arts proper, not liberal arts as the term has been corrupted to today). Students took a range of subjects and developed them all, looking up to someone like Aristotle who expounded as comfortably on drama and poetry as he did on science. Aristotle himself in his Nichomachean Ethics wrote that

“We take the human function to be a certain kind of life, and take this life to be activity and actions of the soul that involve reason; hence the function of the excellent man is to do this well and finely.”

The human end, in other words, is to think and to reason well in pursuit of happiness. We contribute by thinking and reasoning and bringing our thought into contact with society. There should be no limits to what our thought encompasses. To limit ourselves to one field of thought (if we can separate fields of knowledge at all) is foolish, in this tradition.

But our colleges and universities have come to follow a very different tradition, one that came about much later than the Greek “all-round” ideal. This is the German “bildung” tradition, or that of personal development, which Anthony Kronman in his latest book has argued led directly to the research (specialist) ideal of the modern university:

“Two features of the Bildung ideal meshed in an especially close and supportive way with the requirements of specialised academic research… The first was an insistence on the one-sidedness of all responsible self-cultivation. Every human being is born with powers he or she shares with other members of the species. But no one person can develop these to full expression. Life is too short for that… To aim at a universal humanity that encompasses the whole of mankind’s powers [the Greek tradition] is not only fruitless, and hence imprudent, but self-indulgent as well. What one must do instead is develop to their fullest the distinctive talents one possesses, leaving it to others to develop theirs in turn.”

So the model of specialization that our universities follow today is derived from a totally different intellectual tradition and foundation to the model of well-roundedness of our high schools. They come from different places, and they encourage us to be different people.

     Which Ideal to Strive For?

I think it’s too simplistic to say that because university is considered “higher” education, we should follow the ideal that it puts forth. One can follow that ideal if one chooses to devote one’s life to scholarship, but the ideal might not make sense if we want something else in life.

For the record, I think “wholeness” and well-roundedness is an ideal to strive for in our personal lives. But I recognise that people go to university for a variety of reasons—and so maybe some more general advice is needed in this case.

My suggestion is that in thinking about high school and then university we should separate in our minds that stage of education from the ideal that they necessarily put forth. Going to university does not require us to become specialists, even if it encourages it; and contrariwise, one can still specialise at a high school committed to developing the “all-round” person.

That each stage of our education puts forth different ideals is as much a result of the chance development of these two kinds of institutions as it is a necessary reality.

If your mind favors thinking broadly and generally, and you push back against the pressure to specialise, then hold onto that. Don’t let the fact that you’re in a university tell you you must specialise.

If you have a deep passion for a single field and want to devote yourself to that, then specialise, regardless of any pressure you feel to broaden. (A word of caution here, however: When we are very young it is difficult to tell where else we might find passions and interests. Enforced general study at high school does make sense in many ways, because we are told that we are not yet ready to make lifelong decisions about what to devote ourselves to. But as with everything, it is an individual decision.)

At the very least, it pays to remember that the ideals we are shown daily are not ones we need to follow. It is far more important to find out who we are as individuals, and then find an ideal to match that.