Well, here I am. I promised. No funny pictures and weird self-promotion campaigns. Just a blog about a topic that might interest some of us in the sciences.
I was discussing the writing of an “Introduction” for a paper with a student in the lab recently. I found the discussion strikingly reminiscent of the discussion that I had had just days earlier with my 11 year old son, who was in the process of writing a 3-5 minute speech for a school contest. Just as an aside, he chose Stephen Hawking as ‘someone who had overcome great obstacles.’ A wonderful choice, in my view, and I am learning a lot about this fascinating and brilliant scientist.
Back to the point: my advice in both cases was to start broad, and slowly narrow down and zoom in to the topic in question. So for the ‘Introduction,’ I suggested to plan out the writing with an outline, where the first paragraph addressed the topic in the most general manner, and the subsequent paragraphs gradually focused the reader until he/she was familiar with the overall background, and finally the explicit research question or hypothesis being tested–before launching into the ‘Results.’
And with this little bit of background, like a story within a story, I am finally ready to get to the point of this little blog–to address the generalist vs. specialist philosophy in university education. More specifically, I ask whether a broad-based 4-year university education is better than a more focused 3-year education. I know this will be relevant to those of you on the wrong side of the pond, because my understanding is that 3-year programs are the rule–as was the case for my own undergraduate studies in Jerusalem.
There is a joke about people who specialize–that they know more and more about less and less–until they know a whole lot about nothing. Whether that is the case or not, I think the 3-year vs. 4-year system deserves some thought.
In countries such as Israel, with a compulsory 3-year military service for men (and 2 years for women), the university students tend to be older and more mature than students who have come directly from high school. In many cases Israeli students have traveled abroad after the military and worked to support themselves through university–so knocking off a year from tuition and joining the work force (or continuing on to higher degrees) more quickly makes sense.
On the other hand, most US students come directly from high school. Many have never worked and often have barely been away from their parents/home, so the university experience is as much a social experience as it is educational. But even more importantly, many students really have not arrived at a stage where they can easily make up their minds about what they want to do for the rest of their lives. For this reason, the extra year, the ability to change a major and take in a broad array of courses–can be a distinct advantage.
In my undergraduate studies, the ‘biology’ program was a structured program of 3 very intense years. First year had me taking courses in advanced calculus, computer programming (Pascal–anyone remember that?!), inorganic chemistry, organic chemistry, physical chemistry, physics–and wonder of wonders–in the second semester, finally exposure to ‘biology’ with a course in biochemistry. With all the labs added on, and the chemistry and physics running both semesters, there was no time to add on any additional courses. I was doing all I could to survive.
In truth, having always been interested in philosophy, I enrolled in a course that was at 4 p.m. on the one day when I didn’t have labs that went on until late in the evening. It was at the other campus, and I had to take two buses–almost an hour–to get there. It wasn’t particularly difficult, and I was enjoying the change of scenery, but soon realized that it was impinging on my time studying organic chemistry. So I dropped the philosophy.
In my particular case, being an avid reader with a wide range of interests, and having already read and studied philosophy on my own, it probably wasn’t a great loss. But the situation did highlight the emphasis on early specialization.
As a student, I did have the honor of attending a couple of lectures by the famous Dr. Yeshayahu Leibowitz. I believe that he was in his mid-eighties at the time–a legendary doctor, philosopher, neurologist, embryologist, chemist and controversial political activist. Deeply religious, Dr. Leibowitz was unusual for his left-wing views and conclusions that the occupation of Palestinian territory is unethical. He was clearly ahead of his time.
I bring up the case of Leibowitz because such a degree of wide expertise is practically unheard of. This is not only because people of Leibowitz’s caliber are few and far in between, but also because in today’s world, early career specialization is almost a prerequisite for success. And not just in academia.
Children who don’t begin skating or playing football well before the age of 6 or 7 are probably never going to be professional hockey or football players. You can’t learn chess at my age, as I’ve tried to do, and expect to make master rank. If you begin at age 5 or 6, and you are good, it’s certainly possible. But if you want to excel in chess, those piano lessons might take up too much of your time—and you can’t even dream of being a concert pianist without starting music lessons and playing at an early age.
But back to topic again. Does a 4 year program ultimately prepare one better for a career in the sciences? From my personal experience, as well as that as a Graduate/Admissions Committee Chair and lecturer in our biochemistry program, my answer is ‘not necessarily.’ I’ve seen 4-year students with such a dispersed and unfocused background in the hard sciences that they are weakly prepared for graduate school. I’ve also seen 3-year program graduates with such a high degree of focus that they seem to have lost their ability to think creatively.
So what is the answer? I think it depends a lot on the individual. In my case, I probably would have resented being forced to take courses in literature and history (which I love, but chose not to study) at the expense of science. In my case, specialization and a strong background in science has served me well. But I’m also aware that for many others, this might not be the ultimate solution.